David Bowie sang “fame puts you there where things are hollow.” Two new books take a close look at superstar entertainers separated by decades, yet the perks and consequences of fame seem to remain the same. Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus by Dean Jensen is the true story of circus aerialist phenom Leitzel Pelikan who rose to international stardom at the dawn of the 20th century. Author Michael Walker looks to the music scene in What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born.
The Pelikan’s small family circus had fallen on hard times, and crippled patriarch Eduard was forced to “apprentice” his talented 12-year-old daughter Nellie to Willy Dosta’s traveling troupe in order to feed his family. Nellie, an accomplished acrobat and flyer herself, returned within a year and gave birth to baby Leitzel in 1891. Nellie left her baby in the care of her parents while she trained, traveled and eventually found renown under the tutelage of Edward Leamy. Petite Leitzel showed a gift for the trapeze and Roman rings and soon outshone her mother under the big top. So famous that she was known simply as Leitzel, she commanded a private car in the Ringling Brothers circus train, enjoyed legions of admirers and suitors, and was married several times including to her male trapeze counterpart, Alfredo Codona. Queen of the Air is not only a biography of a legendary aerialist, it is a behind the scenes view of the celebrity and circus life of an earlier time.
Walker’s title says it all; his premise is that 1973 marked a year of intense road tours for “every major act of the era” which ushered in the real ’70s, changing the hippie-ish peace and love culture of the ’60s to a harsher reality of big money, scads of friendly groupies and an unending assortment of illicit substances. Walker tracks the travels and travails of The Who, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper whose skyrocketing stars and bulging coffers are directly proportional to the indulgence of their dissolute behaviors. 1973 marked the year of outrageous contract demands, powerful and massive customized sound systems and no-holds-barred stage shows. What You Want Is in the Limo will be enjoyed by anyone who ever held a transistor radio to their ear.
America’s most famous family feuders are surely the Hatfields and McCoys. Memorialized in cartoons, movies, and recently the subject of a television mini-series, the two clans have become an Appalachian cultural reference. In The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, author Dean King presents a factual history of the warring families and lays to rest some of the myths perpetuated around the deadly quarrelling which spanned decades.
The Tug River runs between what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. Mountainous and forested, the valley’s inhabitants scratched out a living hunting, timbering, sometimes brewing moonshine. "Devil" Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy were each a patriarch with thirteen or more children apiece and a sprawling network of relatives. Hatfields and McCoys lived on both sides of the river and sometimes chose spouses from the other’s clan. Their peaceful co-existence was challenged with the advent of the Civil War; just as Kentucky became a Union state and Virginia chose the confederacy, family members also chose sides and hard feelings developed with the ensuing home guard executions of "traitors" in both states.
King outlines other incidents which intensified the animosity between the families, including the theft of a branded pig, a dispute over timber rights, and the infamous ill-fated romance between Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy. He thoroughly traces the roots of the hostilities and follows the brutal beatings, home burnings, armed battles, and a court ordered hanging which would eventually claim the lives of well over a dozen people. King uncovered previously overlooked documentary evidence, reviewed legal records and contemporary newspaper accounts, and interviewed descendants of the families, all of which make this book and its fascinating photographs an encompassing study of this deadly vendetta fueled by pride and profit.
Baltimore is front and center in Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel. Vogel, a Washington Post military reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, focuses on a six week period during the War of 1812 – specifically, the British attacks on Washington and Baltimore.
Vogel’s experience is evident in this fast-paced military account peppered with characters essential to the story. The book opens in the summer of 1814 (two years after America invaded Canada) and the British forces are looking for payback. None is more focused on destroying the upstart nation than Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Cockburn would quickly become America’s chief nemesis with his priority of destroying Washington D.C. He eventually advanced on the nation’s capital and ordered the burning of the city’s public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Not content with that successful conflagration, he and his troops turned their attention to Baltimore.
In recounting the remarkable events that led to the last stand in Baltimore, other principals are introduced and their impact duly noted. In addition to the well-known actors in this drama such as James Madison and James Monroe, readers also learn more about Dolley Madison, who rescued so many White House artifacts and Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress responsible for crafting the flag. And a book about the Battle of Baltimore wouldn’t be complete without Francis Scott Key, an innocent prisoner of the British troops and witness to the brutal destruction during the defense of Fort McHenry that inspired him to write "The Star Spangled Banner". This is a colorful presentation of both sides of the story filled with details that complement the narrative of military events. The victory at Baltimore remains a turning point in American history that changed both the outcome of the war and the fate of our fledgling nation.
The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village by John Strausbaugh is a loving tribute to one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the world, Greenwich Village in New York City. In the modern era, Greenwich Village has been synonymous with radical art, poetry music and political change.
Since the very beginning of its settlement in the 17th century, the land that would later be known as Greenwich Village or just “The Village,” has always been an outpost for rebels and misfits. It was originally home to just a few hundred people, whose regular sources of entertainment included taverns and brothels. During the next 400 years, The Village continued to be home to radicals and rogues of every stripe.
Just browsing through Strausbaugh's history is a reminder of the Village’s amazing artistic output, in the late 20th century alone. Alan Ginsburg and Bob Dylan got their start in The Village, as did Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce. It was also an epicenter in the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn Bar had been raided many times before but the infamous police raid on a hot night in June of 1969. That particular raid has been memorialized as simply “Stonewall,” the event galvanized the LGBT community into civil rights activism. For anyone interested in New York City or American cultural history, The Village is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and personalities.
Everybody makes mistakes. Most folks get to learn from their errors and move on. On occasion, poor judgment leads to ruinous, far-reaching consequences, examples of which author Bill Fawcett examines in Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing: 100 Mistakes that Lost Elections, Ended Empires, and Made the World What It Is Today. Starting with the dynasty-destroying actions of the first Chinese emperor in 229 BC and travelling through history to end with the 2011 post-tsunami nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, Fawcett analyzes the decisions which eventually led to disaster. Some scenarios analyzed by the author are readily familiar to readers, such as the epic failure of 1920’s Prohibition legislation banning booze; instead of routing out poverty and making “hell…forever for rent,” brutal organized crime activity skyrocketed thanks to the lure of the lucrative black market for alcohol. Other examples offer food for thought, such as the premise that President Eisenhower’s support of the tyrannical Shah of Iran paved the way for the current adversarial relationships between Middle East countries and the United States. Each situation presented by Fawcett provides an interesting retrospective on some of history’s seminal events.
Edward Steers also mines history in his book Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds. Unlike the unintended consequences revealed in Trust Me, Steers deals with the intentional deceptions of forgers which are foisted upon a sometimes all-too-willing-to-believe public. Steers presents perpetrators who are sometimes motivated by money, as in the “discoveries” of the infamous Hitler diaries or sacred Mormon text. Other times, the finger is pointed by political rivals like those who wanted to taint President Roosevelt’s reputation by claiming he knew about Pearl Harbor prior to the attack but failed to act. The Shroud of Turin? The missing link? Steers weighs in on both outright cons and more subtle mysteries with careful detail and scientific evidence, making both convincing arguments and a fascinating book.
Travel can be a tortuous process. First you plan your itinerary, then you pack (and pack and pack). Eventually you end up with all your belongings at the airport or the train station and your journey begins. Most often, after a few hours you have arrived at your destination with the happy knowledge that your journey is almost at an end. But what if it didn’t end? What if you kept traveling and traveling, across continents and oceans and deserts, until you had made it all the way around the world? In 1889, two women set off to do just that, racing to circumnavigate the globe by steamship and railway in no more than seventy-five days at a time when Jules Verne’s fictional hero could do no better than eighty. Matthew Goodman’s new work, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, chronicles both women over the course of their very long trek.
Nellie Bly, a plucky and ambitious newspaperwoman, was surprised but willing when her editor at The World asked her to try to become the fastest person to circle the Earth. Not to be outdone, The Cosmopolitan, a rival newspaper, sent out their own female journalist travelling in the opposite direction on the same day. As they sped on, Bly and Bisland suffered from seasickness, missed connections, and the vicissitudes of the weather. Interest and speculation raced along with them, especially in Bly’s case. All of America and many parts of the world were anxiously counting the minutes and seconds until the day an American girl would become the fastest woman in the world. Goodman’s well-paced and extensively researched story is quietly suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable. History buffs, travelogue addicts, and narrative nonfiction lovers will find themselves careening through this tale of long-lost American traveling glory.
Cars on top of boats on top of roofs. Mountains of debris in flattened urban landscapes. Sea-salty inland lakes miles away from the Pacific coastline. These were all fairly common scenes after the March 11, 2011 earthquake off of the northern coast of Japan caused a series of massive tsunami waves that decimated the eastern coast of the Tohoku region. Only months after the disaster first struck, Gretel Ehrlich, an American travel writer, came to personally view, experience, and record the wreckage and the perseverance of the people and places impacted most by the quake and tsunami. Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami is the insightful, poetic, personal chronicle of her expedition.
After she arrives, Ehrlich makes her way slowly up and down the devastated coastline, stopping by villages, cities, temples, and emergency shelters along the way. She comes to see the depth and variety of responses to the catastrophe in the people she meets and those she travels with, especially her drivers and translators, and their families. Through her conversations, the reader gradually realizes how profoundly Japan’s long acquaintance with the tsunami as a natural phenomenon has permeated its culture and worldview. Impermance, uncertainty, and acceptance of what cannot change are rooted in the Japanese character that Ehrlich’s portrayal reveals. Still, moments of happiness and joy punch through the sorrow and anxiety that the author and those she meets experience.
Wrenching, inspiring, and compelling, Facing the Wave is an emotional reminder that even though we may no longer see it mentioned on the nightly news, the aftermath of a disaster of this scale lingers for those who lived through it and those who care enough to remember.
The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
We often think that modern rock stars and actors have the market cornered when it comes to bad behavior, but the list of authors who achieved notoriety is long and distinguished. Andrew Shaffer reveals their stories in Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. From the Marquis de Sade to James Frey, Shaffer brings us true stories of the vices, scandals, and exploits of well-known authors from Western literature.
At the height of his addiction, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, took 8,000 drops (80 teaspoons worth!) of laudanum a day. Lord Byron was known to drink wine from his ancestors’ skulls to help ease his depression. He also had a love affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Although she began as a teetotaler, Dorothy Parker eventually became an alcoholic. She smoked three packs of Chesterfield cigarettes a day and used tuberose perfume to mask the smell of the scotch that she habitually drank. When she was warned that her behavior would send her to an early grave, Parker replied, “Promises, promises!” While entertaining friends, Joan Vollmer, common-law wife of William S. Burroughs, challenged him to prove his marksmanship by shooting a highball glass off the top of her head. Both were drunk. Burroughs obliged but missed, killing her instantly. In 1969, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power Party ticket, a high-profile stunt that Thompson hoped would gain attention for his “freak power” message.
Shaffer brings us all of the outrageous details and salacious gossip in this compilation of the bad boys and bad girls of literature. Chapters are separated by literary period, and discuss the authors from that era. Readers will be struck by the interconnectedness of these great authors’ lives. Infused with Shaffer’s dark humor, Literary Rogues amuses, saddens, and sometimes shocks.
Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln has created renewed interest in our 16th President, and author Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln before the Civil War brings to light a little-known episode from Lincoln’s life. In 1861, President-elect Lincoln made the 13-day journey from Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., by train, stopping to make appearances along the way. The nation was on the brink of civil war, and emotions ran high. Lincoln, a symbol for the Union, was an obvious target. Famed detective Allan Pinkerton was asked to help ensure Lincoln’s safety on the journey. A credible plot to assassinate Lincoln, led by an outspoken Italian barber in Baltimore named Cypriano Ferrandini, came to light. They planned to kill Lincoln when his train made its stop at the Calvert Street Station. As the train drew closer to Baltimore, Pinkerton and several of his agents raced to save Lincoln, and the assassination conspiracy, which is now known as The Baltimore Plot, was foiled.
Stashower, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, skillfully weaves elements of true crime and history together in a story that author Harlan Coben calls “history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller.” The political turmoil of that time is palpable, and Stashower makes historical figures come alive in this character-driven story. Readers who enjoy narrative nonfiction like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America or Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President will want to read The Hour of Peril.