Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece

Every now and then, I find a book that thrills me with its promise. After all, who doesn’t want to know the full story behind one of the great missing pieces of music in history?

And then, you read it.

Sigh.


This book is not a balanced look at Brian Wilson’s lost “Smile” album. It is a Wilson fanboy’s look at how wrong the Beach Boys, and everyone else, was.

The author, we find our very late, is tight with the Brian Wilson side, and strongly against the other members of the Beach Boys, which of course colors his story. It even leads him to make a few wild assertions. For example, he agrees that maybe their publicist in 1966-67 was actually a spy planted by their friendly rivals, the Beatles. They must have heard an early mix of “Smile,” which led them to create “Sgt. Pepper.”

Uh, no.

Unfortunately, this book is largely the recollections of one man – and not even Brian Wilson himself. The vast majority seems to come from Van Dyke Parks, the lyricist who worked with Wilson at the time. Other voices are very late to the game, and not very important.

This is not really a comprehensive book on one of the most important albums of the rock era. It’s a fanzine article that goes on far too long.

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The Flight: Charles Lindbergh’s Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing

This is an account of the 18-or-so hours that Charles Lindbergh spent crossing the Pacific from New York to Paris, and it’s a riveting one.

Let’s be clear that the author isn’t about to defend the man’s politics, or to go over the kidnapping of his son. It’s strictly about the flight, and it’s a good thing.

The perilousness of his feat is well illustrated by the forward, which follows the attempt by two French aviators to make the crossing from Paris to New York two weeks before.  After using the best plane, a concocting a solid game plan, and leaving nothing to chance – they disappear.

Lindbergh’s margin of error was small, and the story illustrates the many times it could have gone wrong. Using his own account of the flight and other contemporaneous accounts, you’re in the cockpit with “Slim,” and find yourself rooting for him, too.

The story does correct and unearth some forgotten information, such as the fact that he flew combat missions during WWII, which, of course, he opposed. That opposition didn’t, and doesn’t, make him a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, any more than those in the 2010s who oppose action in Iraq are automatically ISIS or ISIS sympathizers.

This book lets you revel in the triumph of flight, when it was still a wonder, and marvel at the people who stretched the boundaries.

I received this book for review from Goodreads.

Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers

A comprehensive overview of the Marx Brothers that doesn’t forget what Gummo and Zeppo brought to the show.

The pursuit of the truth is a goal of this book, but the author is honest that you can’t always know. When he can’t sort it out, he presents different stories, from different people’s memories, and lets the reader sort it out.

It seems you get the warts-and-all look at the brothers, and it’s not all attractive.

For example, Groucho is largely blamed for his wives’ alcoholism, saying that was their only respite from his verbal abuse. This is at odds with another book on Groucho that I’ve read, and reviewed, called Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. Which is the truth? I don’t know.

Ultimately, what we should take away from the Marx Brothers is the terrific films – and the not-so-good ones, too – that are their legacy and gift.

1775: A Good Year for Revolution

I did something with this book that I rarely do: I gave up.

It’s a long slog, not chronological but an issue-by-issue look at the American Revolution. And it, frankly, goes on too long for what it’s trying to say.

This book posits that 1776 is the only date that is given any consideration when we think of the American Revolution, and that 1775 is much more important. It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t know of anybody who thinks all of this was accomplished in one year. The entire scope of the American Revolution began in earnest in 1774, if not partially before, and the United States wasn’t firmly established until 1789, when the Constitution went into effect and Washington was elected the first president.

The author seems to be pushing to move our celebrations back to 1775, but that’s not really necessary. The thought that 1775 was important is fine, and true, but why act as though the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was not worthy of marking?

Ultimately, this book reads like a long dissertation. It’s more academic than general, not that reader-friendly. And a tremendous amount of it is just a survey of already-written history books and papers. He may restate it well, but I can’t really find all that much that’s new. He even acknowledges that he relies mostly on what comes before by quoting TWO books at the beginning of each chapter.

It’s full of information, but it’s not must-read material. It didn’t keep me going.

 

West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express

Right away, one of the most amazing facts about the legendary Pony Express is that it lasted a mere 18 or so months. And another of the most amazing facts is that it was intended to exist only a short time.

The Pony Express ran mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. But it was only a demonstration for the men who started it. They really wanted a normal mail contract from the U.S. government, and the Pony, as it was called, was a way to show that they could deliver the mail.

The cliché of only single young riders was just that, something added after the Pony was over, as was most of the legend. For example, the one man who did more than anyone to burn the Pony Express into the consciousness of the nation, Buffalo Bill Cody, likely never rode it. But his Wild West show helped turn it into a Western legend.

The author uses the device of the 1860 presidential election to tell his story with aplomb and humor. He recounts the stories, legends and tall tales as we follow the news that Lincoln had won all the way from the East to the West just a few days later, which was a revelation.

Just months after opening, the telegraphs came along – and there was a telegraph station that the Pony delivered to, in fact. As the Pony wrapped up, the telegraph took over, and the men who started the Pony had their hand in the transcontinental railroad, too.

This is a fun, fast-moving story and a must if you’re interested in the stories of the Wild West.

Recommended.

This book was won from Library Thing.

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

This is a peek behind the scenes of the most powerful office in the Free World, and the people who help set the agenda for the president.

Chiefs of staff are the top dog in the White House, only behind the president and vice president – and, in some cases, more powerful than the veep.

The roll call of chiefs of staff is impressive: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Haldeman, Haig, Sununu. They all had a large role to play – and some secrets to hide.

The position began in the late ’50s, with Truman. Some presidential successors installed strong chiefs (Nixon had Haldeman – maybe too strong) and others had weak chiefs (Obama’s Bill Daley). The gold standard is still Reagan’s James Baker, a chief good enough to have been a president.

The book is full of great stories of success and failures, from scandals to successes to uncertainties.

Every president and his staff from Truman to Obama is represented, with a new chapter on Trump. Although the book is largely apolitical, the writer can’t help himself from taking swipes at the current officeholder.

A great book to get a view of what really goes on behind the curtain.

I received this from Books for Bloggers.

Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants

“Weeds” should be a history of weeds around the world and how they’ve impacted man, been the source of medicine, worked their way into art, and more.

But it’s not quiet that. It’s mostly how weeds infiltrate British gardens.

OK, so it’s more than that, but that’s what it felt like to me in the long run.

England is crazy about gardening, and one of those crazy gardeners is the author. So, most of the writing is from that perspective. It’s fun for what it is, but I wanted more cultural history, and a global perspective. But I guess it wasn’t really going to happen with this writer.

Another problem was that the author used a lot of colloquial names for the weeds he discussed, but that means if you’re outside of England, you don’t really know what he’s talking about (unless and until he clarified or used American names).

What did he miss? As I said, medicine, weeds as food, the interaction between weeds and insects, or birds, or animals.

There were interesting sections, like how weeds took over bombing sites after WWII.

All in all, an OK book, but not what I was hoping for.