Book Review: Who Was John F. Kennedy by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was John F. Kennedy
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Continuing our way through the “Who Was…?” series with my son.  This book again shows the series’ ability to be age-appropriate, but to also offer honest appraisals of their subjects.  I was particularly impressed by the details of Kennedy’s pre-Presidential life.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy


Author: Tara Clancy
TitleThe Clancys of Queens
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, 2016.
Summary/Review:

Tara Clancy is one of my favorite storytellers from shows like The Moth, Risk, and Snap Judgment, so I was delighted to receive a free advanced review copy of her memoir through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Clancy describes her childhood in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s moving around to live with her cop father in a repurposed boat shed in Broad Channel, a virtual commune of elderly relatives at her Grandparent’s house in Brooklyn, and weekends at her mother’s wealthy boyfriend’s estate in the Hamptons.  Young Tara navigates these three different worlds with aplomb and even with the tough challenges of poor kid in the city manages to maintain a sense of humor and adventure.  This is an inspired memoir and a joy to read.
Favorite Passages:

“By then, age ten, I was already a tried-and-true child chameleon, a real-life little Zelig who knew how to go from being barfly at a Queens local hangout to a summertime Bridgehamptonite to an honorary septuagenarian at the drop of a dime.  Despite all that (or maybe  because of it), there was one role I didn’t always like to play: kid.  More specifically, rule-abiding kid.”  – p. 111-112

Recommended books:

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield, Lost In Place by Mark Salzman, and All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDondald

Rating: ****1/2

Book Reviews: Who was Franklin Roosevelt? by Margaret Frith


Author: Margaret Frith
TitleWho was Franklin Roosevelt?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2010.
Summary/Review:

A good introductory biography of one of America’s greatest Presidents.  It’s not warts and all, but like many books in this series it includes some of Roosevelt’s failures as well as his success.  Another great historical read with my son.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who is Dolly Parton? byTrue Kelley


Author: True Kelley
TitleWho is Dolly Parton?
Publication Info: New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, [2014]
Summary/Review:

I finished this children’s biography with the sense that Dolly Parton is one of the kindest, most optimistic, and hardest working people in show business.  And that’s all probably true, too!  Also pretty impressed that my son who never listens to country music chose to read this book, but Dolly is also responsible for The Pirates Voyage (among many other things).

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Louis Armstrong by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was Louis Armstrong
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2004.
Summary/Review:

The life of musician and icon Louis Armstrong is explored at a kids level, focusing mostly on his early life up to the 1930s.  Armstrong grew up in poverty in New Orleans and spent time in a reform school although he claimed that it saved him as it introduced him to the cornet.  Armstrong is celebrated both for his musical talent and innovation and for breaking down barriers for black people.  It’s an interesting book about a fascinating person, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the nuances of race such as when critics called him an “Uncle Tom.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Jesse Owens by James Buckley, Jr.


Author: James Buckley, Jr.
TitleWho Was Jesse Owens
Publication Info: New York, NY : Grosset & Dunlap, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Jesse Owens is well-known as a legendary track and field star who was a pioneer for black athletes, attending Ohio State University, going to the Olympics, and winning four gold medals.  Much is made of Owens being a black man demonstrating his prowess in front of Hitler and the Nazis, but this book also points out that German fans cheered for him and a German athletes befriended him.  There’s also an unsettling moment when it appears that the US Olympic Team may have made Owens run a relay in place of a Jewish runner.  Celebrated at home, Owens also received jeers from prejudiced whites and from more radical blacks who thought he should not have gone to Nazi Germany.  Later in life, Owens criticizes the Civil Rights movement but later has a changed of heart.  All in all this is a story of remarkable and complex man, and I appreciate that this children’s biography worked through the many layers of nuance.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Who Was Annie Oakley by Stephanie Spinner


Author: Stephanie Spinner
TitleWho Was Annie Oakley
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2002.
Summary/Review:

I keep learning things I never knew from my son’s biographies of notable people.  Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter and that was all I knew about her.  Turns out she made an interesting life out of her skill traveling around the country and Europe with circuses and Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  The relationship with Cody could be contentious, especially since Annie Oakley was the star attraction.  But it appears that she also was always a kind person and spent her later years on philanthropic pursuits as well as teaching women how to shoot, for free.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Who was Johnny Appleseed? by Joan Holub


AuthorJoan Holub
TitleWho was Johnny Appleseed?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Another children’s biography that I read to my son that ended up teaching me about someone I knew little about.  John Chapman, Massachusetts born, moved to the frontier to raise apple orchards and sell seeds and seedlings to the pioneers who didn’t have time to time raise any apples themselves.  Both an eccentric and a genius of self-promotion, Johnny Appleseed left his mark on the American landscape.  If there’s one downside to this book is that it glosses over the fact that the apples were primarily used to make an alcoholic beverage, something I don’t think needs to be hidden from the kids.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Who Was Neil Armstrong by Robert Edwards


Author:  Robert Edwards
Title:  Who Was Neil Armstrong
Publication Info:  New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012.
Summary/Review:

My son and I enjoyed another “Who Was?” biography about the first person to set foot on the moon.  Armstrong was always a private person so he was harder to feel like you knew anything about him compared with Buzz Aldrin and other more outgoing astronauts.  This book fills in the details such as his early love for flying and becoming a pilot at a young age.  There’s also the sad story of his daughter dying at the age of two, something that Armstrong never spoke about.  This is a good bio for children (and their parents) wanting to learn about the man who took “one small step” and changed the world.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Who Is Michelle Obama by Megan Stine


Author: Megan Stine
Title:  Who Is Michelle Obama?
Publication Info:  New York : Grosset & Dunlap, An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., [2013]
Summary/Review:

My song picked out this children’s biography to read at bedtime from the Who was?/Who is? series and we both noted that despite her prominence, neither of us knew much about Michelle Obama.  So it was interesting to learn her life story, one of hard work and great accomplishments, and be reminded of just how quickly the Obamas went from ordinary Americans to the White House (and Michelle likely has a lot more life to live so there will be more to her story).  The book included short features about some other First Ladies from America’s past dispersed through the text.  I thought the book tended to overemphasize Michelle Obama’s beauty and fashion sense at the expense of her talents and accomplishments, but otherwise was a good introduction to her life.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Davy Crockett? by Gail Herman


Author: Gail Herman
Title:  Who Was Davy Crockett? 
Publication Info:  Grosset & Dunlap (2013)
Summary/Review:

I read this children’s biography to my son.  I actually knew very little about Davy Crockett (who as we learn in the biography preferred to be called David) so it was interesting to read a book that focused on the facts of his life rather than the legend.  We learned that he was a man who moved around quite a bit on the Western frontier of Tennessee, enjoyed hunting bears, served in U.S. Congress, and died fighting at the Alamo.  It was all very interesting although the book does soft-pedal the severity of his involvement with “Indian removal,” slavery, and the anti-Mexican prejudice of the Texas liberation fight.  On the other hand, it doesn’t ignore these issues.  So we’re presented with a story of a complex man who’s life may be more interesting than the folk tales he inspired.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: 42 (2013)


Title: 42
Release Date: 2013
Director:  Brian Helgeland
Summary/Review:

This straightforward biopic documents Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became the first black player to break through the color barrier in Major League Baseball.  It suffers from an excess of Hollywood dramatic moments, but mostly it’s true to life in showing what Robinson had to deal with just to play ball.  Harrison Ford seems just a bit odd cast as Branch Rickey, and the characterization of Rickey is too idealized for a man who was actually loathed by a lot of players for his greediness.  Chadwick Boseman is excellent as Jackie Robinson (he really gets his moves on the basepaths down) and Nicole Beharie plays a winsome Rachel Robinson.  There are also some great effects that make it look like they filmed on location at Ebbets Field and the other historic ballparks of 1947. All in all, it’s a good introduction to the Jackie Robinson story.

 
Rating: ***

Book Review: Soccer Star Cristiano Ronaldo by John Albert Torres


Author:  John Albert Torres
Title:  Soccer Star Cristiano Ronaldo
Publication Info:  Berkeley Heights, NJ : Speeding Star, an imprint of Enslow Publishers, Inc., [2014]
Summary/Review:

I read this children’s biography of the Real Madrid and Portugal football star aloud to my son.  Ronaldo is not someone I’ve particularly been impressed by as a person, although his talent is unquestionable.  So I was surprised that this kid’s book actually made me feel much greater sympathy for him, as it describes his poor background and his self-awareness that he doesn’t come off quite as well as a more outwardly cheerful player like Lionel Messi.  It’s nice when a simple kid’s book can make you think differently about someone.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
TitleThe Secret History of Wonder Woman
NarratorJill Lepore
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2014)
Previously Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The story of Wonder Women begins as a creation of William Moulton Marston, a something of a quack psychologist previously known for inventing the lie detector test.  Marston worked closely with his wife  Elizabeth Hollaway and Olive Byrne who lived with them in a long-term relationship (and continued living with Holloway after Martson’s death).  Through Byrne they were also connected to her aunt Margaret Sanger who looms large in this book and the history of Wonder Woman.  Lepore shows how the triad’s interests in feminism and unconventional sexuality are expressed through Wonder Woman comics which contains themes of ruling with feminine love and bondage and submission.  Lepore relates an interesting history of Marston, Hollaway, Byrne, Sanger, and others in the women’s rights movements of the 20th century, and Wonder Woman’s unexpected role in the center of it all.

Recommended booksThe Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy
Rating: ***

Book Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


Author: Helen Macdonald
Title: H is for Hawk
Narrators: Helen Macdonald
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2015)
Summary/Review:

After the death of her father, Macdonald works through her grief by adopting and training a young goshawk, Mabel whom she calls “Thirty Ounces of Death in a Feathered Jacket.” This lyrical book is part memoir and part reflections on nature. It also is informed by T.H. White’s The Goshawk. While I’ve never read that book The Once and Future King and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography are among my favorite books, so I appreciate the back door biography of White. And I can’t help but love Mabel. 

Recommended booksT. H. White: a biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


AuthorSarah Vowell
TitleLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator:  Sarah Vowell, with  John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of  historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text.  As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War.  Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war.  I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references.  For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew.  Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.

Recommended booksRevolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Rating: ****

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow


Author: Ron Chernow
TitleAlexander Hamilton
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Penguin Audio, p2004.
Summary/Review:

A straight-forward biography of General Washington’s right-hand man, Constitutional crusader, and founder of American finance as first secretary of treasury. It does not shy away from Hamilton’s failings such as an ill-tempered tongue and poor decisions, but mostly presents him as an honorable person who set the United States on the course to greatness before his own fall from grace (followed by his being felled by a dueling pistol).  Chernow relies on the unnuanced history that presents Aaron Burr as pure villain, but Burr did kill the book’s protagonist, so I suppose it’s only fair.  If you’re looking for an introduction to one of the United States’ overlooked but fascinating founders, this is it.

Recommended books:Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels,  Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis and John Adams by David McCullough
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough


Author: David McCullough
TitleThe Wright Brothers
Narrator: David McCullough
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

The Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, are figures shrouded in the myths and legends of the pioneers of aviation.  David McCullough presents them as two distinct personalities, and introduces the Wright Sister, Katharine, an integral part of their team although she did not directly participate in the experiments with flight. While McCullough always writes (and reads!) in an engaging manner, he tends towards the hagiographic in his biographies.  At one point he observes that Samuel Pierpont Langley has a scientific team, the backing of the government, and millions of dollars and fails, while the Wrights succeed with a little bit of money, their self-taught skills, and a bit of grit.  This is unfair to Langley and wrapped up in the American mythos of the self-made entrepreneur.  That being said, the Wrights were remarkable figures and McCullough does well to provide their background with the key event of December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk not coming until halfway through the book.  After conquering the air, the brothers then split up to market their aircraft to the American military and abroad in France.  Orville suffered serious injuries in a crash in 1908.  Wilbur died young in 1912 and while Orville would live 76 years (long enough to still be alive when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier) he retired from flying in 1918.  Like any good biography this is the story of fascinating lives well told.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: First Family by Joseph Ellis


Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Title:  First Family
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2010), Edition: Unabridged
Previously Read by Same Author: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Summary/Review:

Historian Joseph Ellis explores the relationship of Abigail and John Adams, and how it was effected by the Revolutionary Era, not to mention the effect they had on fomenting revolution.  The main source for this history is their voluminous correspondence which shows that they saw one another as intellectual equals discussing the issues of the day, but also demonstrated a romantic attachment.  While Abigail is the more grounded of the two balancing John’s fiery personality, there are instances where Abigail seems more extreme, such as her support of going to war with France during John’s presidency or her approval of the Alien & Sedition Acts.  Since the book relies so heavily on correspondence, there is more material for the times that they were apart than when they were together and obviously not writing one another.  For the later years after John’s presidency, Ellis relies on the pair’s correspondence with other individuals (including the famed letters to and from Thomas Jefferson), but it loses the intimacy of the earlier parts of the book.  Ellis may have done better to pare the book down just to the years where correspondence between Abigail and John exists rather than attempt the story of their entire lives, but that’s a minor quibble.  This book paints a human portrait of the “venerable” couple from the time of the nation’s birth.
Recommended books: John Adams by David McCullough and Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson


Author: Erik Larson
TitleIn the Garden of the Beast
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio : Books on Tape, p2011.
Books Read by Same AuthorThe Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm

Summary/Review:

This history and biography book explores the rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of one American family.  Specifically that is the family of William E. Dodd, appointed to be ambassador to Germany by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Dodd and his adult daughter Martha are the main characters of the book.  Dodd initially is supportive of Hitler and shares in some antisemitic beliefs.  Martha, recently separated from her husband, enjoys the social life of Berlin and liaisons with several men including Soviet intelligence operative Boris Vinogradov.  Over time the Dodd’s became more aware of the violence and oppression of the Nazi state, and the ambassador begins to become more vocal in calling on the United States to oppose Hitler’s regime (which in isolationist America proves to be an unpopular stance).  This is an uncomfortable book to read.  The Dodd’s are not very likable people, but then they’re contrasted with Nazis.  No one comes off looking good.  Still this is an interesting glimpse into a troubling time in history.
Rating: ***