The Wright Brothers

by David McCullough, 2015, Simon and Schuster, New York

I thought this book was interesting, primarily because I didn’t know that much about the Wright brothers, even though I had made one visit to Kitty Hawk.  McCullough, as usual in his books, provides a lot of information about the capabilities, personalities, and idiosyncrasies of his primary characters, in this case Wilbur and Orville Wright and their sister, Katharine.

My reaction to the book is that it certainly isn’t McCullough’s best effort.  He accurately depicts the lead up to the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, but the rest of the book seems like a catalog of the various rewards and accolades the Wrights received afterward.  From 1903 to 1910 the Wrights must have made significant advances in the technology of flight, but McCullough only mentions these in passing.  The book would have benefited greatly from a collaboration with an aeronautical expert.  McCullough apparently is not one of those as he describes only the duration of the flights, sometimes the altitude, and who of note was in the audience. The first flight was only twelve seconds and, by 1910, the Wright brothers were able to fly for over an hour.  Much of the improvement was due to their additional experience in flying, but certainly their ingenuity must have led to technological advances that they applied to each iteration of their aircraft.  McCullough mentions some increases in horsepower of the subsequent engines, but not much more.

I was intrigued on my visit to the Edison museum with the advances in design and technology that Edison applied to each succeeding of his phonographs.  The Wright brothers essentially invented the first powered aircraft and also learned how to fly it. I would be interested in knowing more about how they improved upon it over the years following.

Also of interest might have been the lineage of the Wright Company and the fact that it subsequently became a part of the Curtiss-Wright Company, a company that survives today.  McCullough mentions the Wright brothers’ rivalry with Glenn Curtiss during the early years of powered flight.  It seems ironic that the two companies later became part of one company.

I very much enjoyed reading this book.  I think it would have been much better, however, if the author had provided some additional information about what was developed after the initial flight.3 1/2 stars

A Spy Among Friends, Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre, 2014, Crown Publishing, New York

This story is fascinating as it probes how an upper-class gentleman in British Society could betray his country.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t give all the answers and leaves quite a bit to conjecture.  This may be due to the fact that so many of the records of the British Secret service pertaining to Philby remain sealed, but I would have liked to have come away from the book feeling a little more satisfaction that I understood Philby and the world he lived in.

The book also tends to be a bit repetitive in that it depicts the social situation that Philby lived in as being absorbed in endless drinking and the telling of ribald stories.  This, too, is unfortunate as the same story repeated numerous times tends to get old.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting book.  I just felt it should have given me a bit more.3 1/2 stars

Being Mortal : Medicine and What Matters in the End

by Atul Gawande, 2014, Picador

What a depressing subject!  And yet, this is a book I found I couldn’t put down.  It is a book that everybody should read because, for many of us, our death or the deaths of our family members will not come quickly but will be a prolonged process.  This book provides a great deal of guidance and thought as to how to prepare and handle those situations.

The insight the author provides is extremely valuable  as he seems to have garnered it from a long career that involved a great deal of contact with persons suffering from debilitating and painful disease at the end of their lives.  The wisdom he passes along through his book is truly priceless.  What I really appreciated was that he does not talk down to the reader.  He basically says that he, as a physician, didn’t have a clue about any of this stuff either, but gradually came to his conclusions through a great deal of experience that he is eager to share.

Additionally, the book is extremely well written and structured.  That prose of this high quality could be written by a physician is a bit beyond belief, so I will surmise that he had an outstanding editor.  There are many authors out there whose primary livelihood is writing who don’t come even close to writing the way this book is written.

In reading the book one naturally refers to the deaths of close family members.  In my case, I constantly thought of my father who died of prostate cancer after dealing with the disease for many years.  I thought of all the decisions we made for him and the decisions we left for him and I found myself asking what we did right and what we could have done better.  I was pleased that the book reinforced some of the actions we took but it also gave me a lot of insight as to what my perceptions would have been had I been in the same situation.

I have found that, after reading this book, I am constantly recommending it to many of my friends and family members.  In fact, for my family, I am going to suggest that it be required reading for the guidance it might provide them as to how I would like to be treated if and when I am in that same situation.5 stars

Crazy Horse, A Lakota Life

by Kingsley M. Bray, 2006, Volume 254 of the Civilization of the American Indian Series, The University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK

I purchased this book at the Custer Battlefield at Little Bighorn just before leaving.  As I glanced through the book I suspected that it would be a bit of a chore to get through; I was right about that.

I didn’t really know much about the life of Crazy Horse, however, and I was interested in finding out more.  This book filled the bill in that respect and a lot more.  It was extremely well researched and fairly well written, but the level of detail sometimes got in the way of just plain enjoying it.  The plethora of the names of various Indian individuals and subgroups, as well as the geography, made it very difficult to keep track of what was actually happening.  I sometimes felt like crying out for Ken Burns to provide me some visual orientation.  At the very least, an appendix depicting the various tribes and subtribes along with their leaders would have been very helpful.

It appears that the author has a tremendous respect for the culture and practices of the Lakota Indians and I felt that respect come through strongly in this book.  I think he dealt with the character and actions of Crazy Horse and his contemporaries in a fair and even handed manner.  In the end, however, I’m still not sure whether Crazy Horse over all made things better or worse for his people. 3 1/2 stars

The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown, 2013, Viking Penguin Group

This book is meticulously researched, well-written, and the author obviously has a great love for his subject.  It’s about the crew from the University of Washington that won the nine-man rowing Olympic medal in Berlin in 1936.  The story is interlaced with background information on the various members of the crew and, in particular, the life of Joe Ratz prior to his attendance at the University of Washington.  Some of the details are pretty grim, but, nonetheless, they add to the story of how they went about winning the gold medal.

Daniel James Brown also provides an accurate portrayal of what was occurring in Nazi Germany at the time and how Goebbles wanted to show the new Germany to the world through the Olympic events.  Very scary stuff.

This is a really good book, even if the reader doesn’t have a great deal of appreciation for what’s involved in the sport of rowing.  The author even gets caught up in the excitement of a race that took place almost eighty years ago.4 1/2 stars

Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan

by Seymour Morris, Jr., 2014, Harper

This book was somewhat of a disappointment.  I was very interested in how a successful occupation of another company was managed, particularly after the disaster that occurred in Iraq.  The book seemed to start out pretty well as it depicted MacArthur’s arrival in Japan and some of his first acts and policies.  I think the book bogged down when it abandoned a chronological timeline and addressed various occurrences by topic.  This made it somewhat hard to follow.  Also, it appears that the book had been heavily edited and most of the cuts were probably in the last half of the book where topics were treated almost in summary form.  Perhaps the book would have been very tedious without those cuts, but it seemed that a lot of information was left out of the final product.

I suspect that there are much better volumes available regarding this important period following WWII.2 1/2 stars

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

by Stephen Kinzer, 2014, St. Martin’s Griffin

This book traces the lives and careers of John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen.  It is interesting in that the author contrasts the personalities of each of them and shows how they reacted to various events during their careers.

In the case of John Foster Dulles, the book illustrated to me how someone who is so certain about his beliefs that he doesn’t seem to be able to synthesize information that runs counter to those beliefs. This level of certitude can lead to significant errors in judgment and, in the case of John Foster Dulles, to complicity in the deaths of 57,000 young American men and many, many more Asians.  After painting the impact of this man, the author does indicate that the environment that John Foster Dulles lived and worked in may have had an impact on his decision making.  I, on the other hand, would tend to find him fully accountable for his actions.

Does this mean that individuals like John Foster Dulles are evil?  I don’t think so.  It’s just a sad commentary on the state of human affairs that someone with his psychological makeup can exert such an influence and create such disastrous results.

The personality of Allen Dulles, on the other hand, seems to be just about the complete opposite of John Foster as he was a much more social person.  Kinzer describes in detail how Allen’s personality and predispositions affected his decisions as head of the CIA.

The net result of reading this book was to make me angry that these individuals, through there mistaken assumptions, caused so many deaths and so much destruction.  Their intentions were mostly honorable so they can’t be classified as evil individuals, but it is a testament to the power of ideology and certitude that can produce so much havoc in our world. 4 stars

A Traveller’s History of Turkey

by Richard Stoneman, Fifth Edition, 2009, Interlink Books, Northampton, MA

We bought this book before we took our trip to Greece and Turkey last year, thinking that I would read the book prior to going to Turkey.  I never had the time to read it before, but I thought I would catch up and read it afterwards.

The book did provide what I was looking for, primarily a connection between the ancient sites we visited and present-day Turkey.  What I didn’t anticipate was the high level and number of civilizations that have come and gone in this region.  I was also overwhelmed by the amount and level of atrocities and violence that have occurred over time.  I came away from reading this wondering if Turkey can ever be considered “civilized” given its very checkered and criminal past.  The book was written in 2009 so the last five years of Turkish politics and events are not included, but it gave a sense of where the country might be headed.  It would appear to me that the political situation in Turkey remains a powder keg that can explode at any time either in the near or distant future.

The book itself isn’t very well written.  It was basically a chore to wade through it.  The author seemed to have a very good grasp of the history of the region, but he failed to provide interesting embellishments to his very dry narrative.  There were numerous references to historical names and places with very little context or reference points.  I am happy that I got through it, but it wasn’t an enjoyable read at all.

Finally, my spell check caught an error in the spelling of the book’s title, seeming to prefer “Traveler’s over “Traveller’s.”  2 stars

One Summer: America, 1927

by Bill Bryson, 2014, Anchor Paperbacks

This book is a collection of things that happened in 1927.  It starts with a murder trial in the early part of the year, then describes some of the incidents leading up to Lindberg’s flight over the Atlantic, and includes a great deal of information on Babe Ruth’s and Lou Gehrig’s home run quest.

While the book’s content was somewhat interesting, it wasn’t a page turner for me.  I found that I could easily put the book down and then pick it up again later without any urgency to read on.  The book lacked the edgy humor that Bryson applied to some of his former books (A Walk in the Woods, for example), but it may also be less objectionable to some readers than his other books.  It seems that, by toning his biting humor down somewhat, he has produced a book that is much more bland but less controversial.

As I read the book I was looking for some insight into American history and culture that would give me some clues as to how the present came to be.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find much.

I guess I would best sum up this book as “The whole is less than the sum of its parts.” 2.5 stars

The Colossus of Maroussi

by Henry Miller, originally published in 1941, Second Edition, 2010, introduction by Will Short, afterword by Ian S. MacNiven, a New Directions Paperback

This book was on a book list for our upcoming cruise to Greece and Turkey.  It is a beautifully written travelogue written about a visit that Henry Miller made to Greece in 1939.  Miller describes, in spiritual terms, his encounters with a number of characters and locations throughout his travels.

While Miller goes a bit overboard in his rapture with certain individuals as well as his dislike for anything having to do with America, his prose captures the essence of his experiences.  After traveling recently to New Zealand and having friends ask me what it was like, I could only respond that “You have to go there to see for yourself”.  This response is due to my lack of ability to describe what I felt when I was there.  Miller, on the other hand, has the ability to capture not only what he saw and did, but also the deeply felt emotions he experienced while traveling.

Miller’s style encompasses extremely long sentences that incorporate stream of thought as well as short, staccato sentences reminiscent of Hemingway.  Both seem to precisely fit when he uses them.  The thoughts expressed in the longer sentences are easy to follow and Miller seems to finally plunk down the period in exactly the right spot.

Despite at times getting annoyed by Miller’s tirades about America and its faults, I really liked his vivid descriptions of Greece and his excellent writing. Note: Skip the introduction by Will Short. It struck me as being pompous and basically a bunch of garbage.3.5 stars