Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

Dig deep into the mind and motivations of one of the most famous killers in history, Charles Manson, in this fascinating book.

“Charlie” represents the dark underside of the ’60s, the antithesis of Peace and Love – but as this excellent book points out, the light and dark weren’t so far apart in these tumultuous times.

This book starts at the beginning – actually, before the beginning, with Manson’s mother’s family, her own law struggles and her unexpected pregnancy that begat “Charlie” – which is what they always called him.

Unlike Manson’s telling of the tale later (he was a notorious liar, this is clear), she wasn’t a prostitute and he wasn’t abandoned. But she was a party girl who left her little boy with a series of babysitters, from family to strangers. So, in a sense, maybe Charlie was abandoned.

He himself ends up in reform school, then jail, then prison, again and again. With little real schooling and a manipulative personality, and an overinflated sense of his own musical ability, Charlie sets out to become a famous rock star. And he collects girls to make his plan come true.

Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys is part of the story, of course, as is Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, one of the biggest record producers in LA at the time. That part of the story is well-worn, and many other books go over this ground, including “Helter Skelter.”

The most interesting thing about this book is the development of Manson’s methods – a jailhouse mélange of pimp schooling, Scientology and Dale Carnegie – and the slow buildup of events that lead to the famous murders. The impending doom carries some weight as we head into the Tate-LaBianca killings.

The trials follow, and although amusing and infuriating, the dread of the previous chapters is gone by this time. But the book really wouldn’t have been complete without them.

Reading this soon after Manson’s death, this book gave me a fresh look at a strange time in history, one that becomes increasingly dark the further away we are from it. Manson’s murders weren’t the worst or the most, but they seem to have taken the lid off decades of hell that have followed.

If you can take it, this book is recommended.

 

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The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York

The U.S. wasn’t yet a nation of newspaper readers, and the newspapers that did exist didn’t cater to the ordinary citizen. That all changed with the New York Sun and its tantalizing story about a moon teeming with life – a fake story, designed to grab circulation.

The Sun opened up shop as a penny paper, cheaper than the usual six-cent broadsheets, and looked to make a splash. That it did with a series of stories in 1835 purporting to share details of new scientific discoveries of life on the moon ­– including unicorns, bipedal beavers and man-bats. In reality, writer Richard Adams Locke crafted the fake story and changed the face of journalism.

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The book involves some publishers of the day and even wraps in two unexpected figures: Edgar Allan Poe and P.T. Barnum.

What follows is a rollicking tour through the writing and literature of the day, and the exploits of Poe, Barnum and the writers.

The “Moon Hoax of 1835” caught the imagination of the public, and was a success on many levels, even when the hoax was found out. Poe was at once jealous of and impressed with the story – he had written a moon story months before and thought Locke stole parts of it. Barnum, soon to be a noted hoaxer himself, learned a few lessons.

A couple of complaints – the book didn’t proceed linearly, so the jumps back and forth were confusing at times. Also, the author of this book allowed himself to take more than a few swipes at religion in general and Christianity in particular. It seemed like an odd addition to the story, until you come upon the author’s own, new conclusion:

The “Moon Hoax” was actually a Moon Satire, he says. It was intended as a critique of religious faith and thought. How he arrived at this is murky, and Locke never seemed to have said that himself. But this conclusion doesn’t hold if he doesn’t attack religion in the first place, so that explains it.

I don’t know if I buy the conclusion, but this otherwise is a good book, a celebration of maybe one of the first “fake news” successes, showing just how far some media will go to line their pockets.

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

This is an intriguing account of two nations on the precipice: China and the United States.

It’s 1949 and China, ruled by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, is losing ground to Mao Zedong and the Communists. And Truman weighs his options.

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The United States’ response, or lack of it, goes a long way to establishing the future of the Asian continent, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, future Communist uprisings in Southeast Asia and the eventual mires of Korea and Vietnam.

It’s story of an administration missing its moment and paying dearly for it.

Among the most interesting parts of this book are the interpersonal relationships, none more intriguing than between Madame Chiang and the U.S. public. She was an exotic, well-spoken, glamourous character, pleading her case for American help, while sending notes back home to the Generalissimo, attempting to keep him in line and his spirits up.

The legacy of this time continues to be felt, and in this is a cautionary tale of what happens when an administration is unprepared for the changing world.

I received this book from Blogging For Books.

Christmas: A Biography

This is a fun look at the history of the celebration of Christmas, and the way people have wrestled with it, both as sacred observance and secular festival, since it became a holiday.

There are many books like this out there, going item by item, how Christmas trees came about, or Christmas cards, etc. But this book presents this information as a developing chronological story, which makes it more interesting and real than just a book of lists.

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The first recorded Christmases were in the 300s, and it wasn’t long before there was head-shaking at how secular it had become, and how it was better in “the old days.” Those seem to be the constants in Christmas: the semi-permanent “war on Christmas” and the misty-eyed remembrances of bygone celebrations.

This book also knocks down some myths, such as the Dutch origin of Santa Claus (he seems to have been a Swiss concoction, actually) and that Coca-Cola didn’t imagine his current look (that was the creation, of course, of political cartoonist Thomas Nast). Also in the story are popular books, music and movies ­– special emphasis on “It’s A Wonderful Life” as the first modern Christmas fairy tale, after “A Christmas Carol.”

The development of Christmas from a public to a private celebration, from elite to the masses, from adult to child, is detailed, along with fun bits of knowledge.

A Few Planes for China: The Birth of the Flying Tigers

What a disappointing book.

I hesitate to say “boring,” but I don’t know any other word to use.

To be sure, this author’s take on the birth of the Flying Tiger program is a challenge to the orthodoxy. She says the oft-told tale that Claire Chennault and the U.S. were the driving forces behind the establishment of the program is not true, but that Winston Churchill was instead.

That may be, and I’ll let others wrestle with her assertion (save one comment below). But the tale, as told here, is really a drag.

The author sources a couple of autobiographies plus reams and reams of recently-found documents. And she uses them, seemingly page by page, for the account. But it goes too deep for me.

For instance, did you want to know the serial numbers of the airplanes built in the U.S. and delivered to Britain and then China? Well you have them here. Want to know the dates that memos were sent and then commented on with hand-written notes? You’ve got them here.

What’s missing is interviews – and I realize that many, if not most, of the players are gone now, but maybe other experts could be brought in to give us real quotes. But since the story challenges history, I imagine there are few historians who would agree with her central thesis.

Here is another fact to weigh with this account: The author’s great-grandfather is now portrayed as having an “early and crucial” role in the creation of the Flying Tigers. Take that for what it’s worth.

I want to read about the squadron and its history, but instead we get a deep account of the government red tape surrounding it.

Others gave this book a higher rating than I did. That’s fine by me.

I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviews program.

Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone – 125 Years of Pop Music

Peter Doggett’s sweeping overview of popular music from the 1890s to today (well, 2015, anyway) had a huge challenge: Cover the major and minor trends, and find the threads connecting it all.

He succeeded, in an amazing way.

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“Electric Shock” is one critic’s look at popular music and will have its detractors – I’ve read other reviews saying it’s too broad, or he wasn’t critical enough, etc. But in the Introduction, Doggett made clear what he was up to. He wanted to look at popular music, and couldn’t go back far enough. ’50s? ’40s? ’30s?

Eventually, he settled on the 1890s for two reasons: The beginning of ragtime, one of the first “popular” non-European music styles in the West, and it was the start of sound recording. Both events began to change music.

Another thing Doggett does is set aside his own biases. He acknowledges that the mere mention of Bing Crosby or Queen would set him off. He decided to let all the music speak to him – and in turn, he became a fan of more people and styles than he used to be.

The downside is it spends little time on some bigger practitioners, but the upside is the almost encyclopedic look at styles and artists. He covers jazz, blues, rock, country and subgenre after subgenre, such as swing, boy bands, electronica, bebop, exotica, folk, metal – almost anything that became popular, even for a second.

If you’re looking for a deep dive into rock or jazz, you won’t find it here. But if you want to relive the scope of popular music, decade by decade, you’ll find it here.

Highly recommended.

My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was only the culmination of a family rivalry that spanned decades in “My Thoughts Be Bloody,” a book about John Wilkes and Edwin Booth.

It’s fascinating to read a book about an event we all know and see coming, and to realize what a long road it took to get there. The assassination almost feels like an aside, the last great act in a family of actors used to taking the big stage.

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The book starts with the paterfamilias, Junius Brutus Booth, the greatest British actor of his era, maybe the greatest actor period. He was an alcoholic who left behind a wife and children and set off for America, there finding a new love and fathering many children.

The family secret was they were all illegitimate, as his wasn’t actually married to his American “wife.”

Booth père left to tour Shakespeare, and had more affairs along the way. Eventually, one of the youngest children, Edwin, went with him to help keep him off the bottle and on point. Doing so, he absorbed the family talent – while little brother John Wilkes stayed home with mother.

Edwin eventually takes father’s place as the leader of the family and the talent, even as older brother Junius Jr. (called June) and John Wilkes tried their hand at acting. Short story, neither was as talented as their brother, and John in particular felt a rivalry that grew increasingly bitter.

The book covers many years in the Booth family story, with a full picture of the psychology and mentality of the players leading up to John’s puzzling affinity for the Rebel cause.

There are plenty of twists and turns here, all of them fascinating, and the family story is good enough without the end we know is coming – which only takes part of a chapter, at that.

Highly recommended.