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.

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The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America

Boy was I excited to read this book. Boy was I disappointed when I was done.

“The Little Girl” ostensibly is about Shirley Temple and her impact on America in the 1930s, but ends up being less focused on that. The author goes off track several times and weakens his story in the process.

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For example, the entire first chapter is about Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. I guess it sets the stage for the Depression and Shirley, but I thought that meant that she and FDR would intersect again later in the book. They didn’t.

The author also spends an entire chapter on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and it’s an excuse to explore race in movies in the 1930s. Yes, Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple were in some memorable scenes, but he was in only 4 of Shirley’s more than 30 starring vehicles. A little too much focus on him all things considered. I would love to see more about Bojangles – but in his own book.

The author also attempts to paint the Shirley Temple phenomenon as sexual – really? I felt he was really off base here.

Finally, the book felt like it went on one chapter too long. It tried to keep going after the Depression and into Shirley’s life as an ambassador – but that wasn’t the supposed focus of the book, according to the title.

I learned some things in this book, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet

Hard to believe, but even 50 years ago, scientists were at odds over the mechanism of earthquakes. Some thought it was a settled debate, that the earth was cooling and cracking. Others said earthquakes were the result of a moving crust.

The debate was settled by the largest quake in North American history, the Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska on March 27, 1964.

It was a massive shake, 9.2 magnitude, and caused more than 130 deaths. This book looks at the quake, who were its victims, and how it led to our current understanding of how quakes work.

The book focuses on the village of Chenega, a port town that was almost completely wiped out in the disaster. The almost five-minute-long shaking caused all the damage one would expect, but that wasn’t the main part of the disaster.

As survivors run for the high point in the village, the one-room schoolhouse overlooking the docks, residents notice that all the water in the bay has disappeared. Moments later, the water rushes back in a tsunami, one of a couple that day, flooding the town and ripping kids away from their parents. Dockworkers and their families watching them unload a ship disappeared that day, along with the dock itself.

The book also looks at the efforts of scientists who were attempting to explain what happened, and how to prevent it from happening again.

It was a sad scene painted in the book, people pushed to their limits as their family members went missing, forever impacted, and a village that was abandoned thereafter.

An interesting part of the tale is the fact that there was a disputed on the science of earthquakes. Some considered it “settled” science, that there was no way that continental crust floated on the earth’s mantle. Turns out, of course, that’s exactly how it happens, and the measurements that field scientists took revealed that.

As an aside, whenever anybody says the science of something is “settled,” don’t believe it. Science is always about challenging theories, and as such, always is up for further exploration. Without that curiosity, science itself dies.

A heart-wrenching story, and worth a read.

This book was provided to me by Blogging for Books.

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970

The collapse of the Swinging Sixties and the beginning of the chilled-out Seventies drives “Fire and Rain,” a chronicle of a musical year in the same way as the overview of 1971, “Never A Dull Moment.”

The tale is told through the stories of four acts, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY and James Taylor.

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As the decade begins, the Beatles issue their last album, “Let It Be,” as Paul McCartney lets the public know they’ve split for a while, and the lawsuits begin.

Simon & Garfunkel have their biggest hit, the song and album “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the waters were troubled, as the duo pulls apart, first because Art Garfunkel is filming “Catch-22,” but mostly because they have different desires.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young release “Déjà vu,” a massive hit, as the group itself wobbles under the weight of four feuding stars. It begins decades of on-again, off-again collaborations and reformations.

And James Taylor, first signed by the Beatles’ label Apple, fights through emotional and drug issues to lead the vanguard of that very Seventies phenomenon, the singer-songwriter, with his hit album “Sweet Baby James.”

The stories of the four acts interweave in surprising ways, and the format follows them month by month from late 1969 to early 1971.

The author highlights the four, but also brings in discussions of politics, war and other social issues. He also tells unexpected tales, like how the Kent State shootings led to the formation of Devo.

The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House

A mixed bag about a fascinating man and his perplexing son, Benjamin and William Franklin.

As Ben grew in stature and fame as a scientist and patriot, his illegitimate son William went his own way, becoming governor of New Jersey just as war broke out.

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The Franklins were accused of colluding, splitting the difference and taking different sides so they could help each other when the dust settled. But the battles inside the family revealed how untrue that was.

The loyalist William was hoping it would all go away, and was imprisoned for being on the wrong side.

Meanwhile Ben warily became a patriot, testing the winds and coming to terms with being on the other side. He was brilliant, of course, and much of the patriots’ war and nation planning involved him. But he didn’t go out of his way to help his son, being much more concerned with his grandson, William’s son Temple.

Along the way, Ben posted himself in France and all but abandoned his dying wife. That created more cracks in the Franklin family.

Ben had a tendency to move slowly, leaving for a short visit to England before the war that turned in to a residence of more than 2 years. He kept his own counsel, did what he wanted, and philandered along the way.

This is an interesting look at a complicated, famous family, warts and all. You’ll probably be a little less enamored with Benjamin Franklin afterward.

Excerpts from letters make up the bulk of the book, but we don’t know how truthful any of the Franklins were with each other, so the truth can bit a bit inconsistent and uncertain.

The book, unfortunately, goes on a little too long. Trim it by about 50 pages and it’ll go down better.

I received this book from Library Thing.

 

 

Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang

Slang is everywhere, but may be on its last legs, this book says. That’s but a side argument in a look at the development of slang in the English language.

This seemed like a fun topic, and I was looking forward to learning more history about slang, but the book ultimately wasn’t what I was hoping for.

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For one thing, I was disappointed that almost half the book was about sex, body parts or intoxicants. I guess that’s where a lot of slang comes from, but it felt like those sections went on a bit too long.

The other disappointment is that this was really written from a British point of view, so some of the words and references were, in a word, foreign to Americans. Luckily, I’m an Anglophile so I did get some of the references, but if you aren’t familiar with, say, Cockney rhyming slang, you’ll be lost. Some American slang is folded in, but not as much as compared with the rest of the book.

The one thing that stuck with me was a conclusion made at the end of the book, on the offensiveness of the best slang. Yes, slang does offend, that’s a given. But in our touchy times, that may be the unpardonable sin:

“Ultimately, slang will have no place in this world, because the best of it is almost guaranteed to offend someone, somewhere.”

Let’s hope that conclusion is wrong, because slang is and should remain part of language, offensive or not.

I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway.

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign

As Hillary Clinton herself struggles to understand “What Happened” in her new book – and blames everything and everybody from James Comey to Russians to misogyny to Bernie Sanders – “Shattered” offers another point of view: Hillary’s problem was Hillary herself.

The authors had previously written a sympathetic biography of her at the State Department, “HRC,” which gained them access to the campaign. They were able to talk to staffers off the record as long as they didn’t reveal anything before the election. If they could have, the narrative would’ve changed.

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Hillary starts under the cloud of the email server debacle, and it never really gets much better. She is angry at her staff for being unable to formulate a statement of Hillary’s reason for running – but they can’t because she doesn’t really have one. She’s deep into policy, but short on likeability. People don’t trust her, and haven’t for more than two decades.

In short, she’s her own worst enemy. And yet, as a Clinton, she expected to win. And when it wasn’t going her way, she blamed.

To be fair, the tales of backstabbing and turf wars could probably be told about any major campaign. But hers were particularly interesting because the tiffs set up old-style politicians (like Bill) against new-age analytics gurus (like campaign manager Robby Mook). Decisions were made with faulty premises, and the voting reflected that. For example, the candidate never visited true-blue Wisconsin, either in the primary or the general campaign. And she lost both times.

There are plenty of revelations in this book, and although the tone is sympathetic toward Hillary, there is one fact the authors do drive home: In a climate of rising populism, both within the Democratic party and the nation at large, Hillary was the wrong candidate for the wrong time.

I received this book through Penguin Random House’s Blogging for Books program.