Book Review: Sully: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Sully: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow

Four Stars

“We need to do the right thing every time, to perform our best, because we never know which moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.”

An intimate look at the man responsible for the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sullenberger’s biography as much as the story of his five-minute flight to fame.

“A hero is someone who risks his life running into a burning building. Flight 1549 was different, because it was thrust upon him and his crew.” Lorrie Sullenberger

Obviously, Sullenberger is not an author. The late Zaslow brought together a decent product quickly, however he bears responsibility for the many shortcomings. Perhaps Sullenberger talks like this, but the prose is wordy and awkward. Lots of digressions; some felt like filler.

“In the cultures of some companies, management depends on the innate goodness and professionalism of their employees to constantly compensate for systemic deficiencies, chronic under-staffing, and sub-standard subcontractors.”

Post 2001, the pensions and standards for airline pilots were gutted. Sullenberger shares his obvious unease with the direction of airline management. Capitalism undergirded America’s growth and plenty, but it has a dark underbelly.

“How many different levels of technology do you want to place between your brain and the control surfaces? Technology is no substitute for experience, skill, and judgment.”

I’ve been flying for sixty years. This book confirms my preference to fly commercially only when I have to. It’s no longer fun, efficient, nor economical. It’s effective, usually. So far.

“One of the reasons I think I’ve placed such a high value on life is that my father took his.”

By now most readers know that Sullenberger objected to the way the National Transportation Safety Board investigation was portrayed in the movie supposedly based on this book. The backbone of the movie, that investigation gets about four pages in the book. In fact, the movie should be evaluated as “based on a true story” fiction. The book is much better.

“Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five-minute journey. My entire life led me safely to that river.”

Book Review: If a Pirate I must be … by Richard Saunders (Four Stars)

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Book Review: If a Pirate I must be …: The True Story of Black Bart, the King of the Caribbean Pirates by Richard Saunders

Four Stars

“If a pirate I must be, ‘tis better being a commander than a common man.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

A well-written modern attempt to find the facts behind the fiction of the most successful, if not the most famous of the Caribbean pirates: Black Bart, whose real name was John Roberts. Saunders relates both the popular stories and the realities behind them as well as providing a primer on seventeenth century trade, of which slaves and sugar were among the foremost commodities. That freed African slaves made up as much as a third of successful pirate crews is part of the untold tale.

“Common men showed little enthusiasm for defending their masters’ property.”

With many official and contemporary sources unreliable as officialdom covered their incompetence, and occasionally complicity, dealing with Bart. John Atkin, a ship’s surgeon impressed recorder the courts martial of Joseph’s crew, uniquely and dispassionately recorded the more likely truth. The author’s principal source (with the caveat mentioned) was Charles Johnson’s 1724 A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Johnson is responsible for today’s swashbuckling pirate stereotype.

“The love of drink and a lazy life (were) stronger motives to him (the typical pirate) than gold.” Joseph Mansfield

The eighteenth century Triangle Trade (Africa, to North America and the Caribbean, to Europe and back) on which the pirates preyed—and which killed over half of the slaves, merchant and slavers crews (they were often the same), navy personnel and pirates each year was originally driven by the demand for sugar in Europe. (Much as contemporary North American consumption of South America drugs drives the drug trade through Central America.)

“The promise of unlimited alcohol may have held little appeal [to Roberts] but power did.”

Pirates drank prodigious qualities of punch, the recipe for which included fresh limes., before James Lind’s 1747 discovery that citrus fruit prevented scurvy. Another reason pirates were healthier, if not longer lived, than many of their civilian and military counterparts.

“A merry life and a short one.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

Book Review: Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

Four Stars

“I’m not at all sure if you know that I’m alive.”

So she was/is. One hundred years old, and still living in Paris, which was the point when she wrote this book sixty years ago. She was a big Hollywood deal before most of us were born.

This short book is a chatty, personal memoir of her moving to Paris and marrying a Frenchman in the 1950s. Paris then–France then–clutched the tatters of its legacy as the center of the world, politically and in fashion. Though she still lives there; she probably doesn’t recognize today’s Paris.

“If you are loved by the French as a whole, you really feel loved.

Her adjustment to France and the French made for many humorous episodes which she relates in a conversational style. She suffered many of the misconceptions of fellow Americans and committed many gaffes, but no faux pas. (The significant difference is explained therein.)

What does every Frenchman have? A liver. And how he cares for it makes for a humorous tale in itself.

She learned, “The importance of tact, restraint, subtlety, and the avoidance of banality.”

Book Review: This Life I Live by Rory Feek (Four Stars)

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Book Review: This Life I Live: One Man’s Extraordinary, Ordinary Life and the Woman Who Changed It Forever by Rory Feek

Four Stars

“People pass away. It’s part of life. It’s hard and it’s terrible, but it’s gonna happen to all of us.”

An extraordinary story told very well. Feek bares his soul and talks from the heart about his life, which started badly and got worse as he lived it. The conversational tone pulls the reader in as if this was a chat over coffee.

“A different perspective from what I had most of my life. Finally opening my hands and turning my life over to God.”

So many quotable epigrams that I filled four pages of my notebook. The man is a professional writer: it shows.

“The only way this can work is if we are both willing to give everything up for the other person.”

I never heard of Rory Feek or Joey Martin. I’m not a fan of Country and Western music, but the man has a powerful message: admittedly Christian, but without the trappings and jargon of professional religion. He used only one theological word.

“The point where I did everything wrong was just the bigger of a bigger story. Just the setup.”

“I just wanted a little bit of something good, what I got was a lifetime of something great.”

If you read this book, be prepared to be moved, both by the hash Feek made of his own life and to its incredible outcomes. He takes you deeper inside himself than many memoirs and tell-alls. He shares his heart.

“A story that will live long after the man who told it is gone.”

“Her love strengthened my faith.”

Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy (Three Stars)

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Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy

Three Stars

“It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved,” Queen Victoria

An exhaustive history of the many men who shoot at Queen Victoria. While they varied in background, their motives were surprisingly (and sadly) similar … and usually had nothing to do with injuring the queen. Paradoxically, Victoria was only injured once, and the incident wouldn’t be in the book had Murphy stuck rigorously to his title.

“[Oxford] was pleased to find himself an object of so much interest.”

No bit of related trivia is too small or unrelated for inclusion. Therefore, the reader is subjected to the history of all the other monarchs shot at, the life history of the police, prime ministers, cell mates, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Irish, with a cameo by P. T. Barnum. It’s that kind of book.

“Before, the Queen’s popularity stemmed from her doing; now, it stemmed from her simply being.”

Runs counter to several popular images. Victoria, for example, is usually seen as a shy, reclusive lady. Murphy explains when that image if and when it didn’t, and why. England’s modern image is of an almost gun-free nation. That certainly wasn’t true in the nineteenth century when even paupers could purchase pistol most anywhere.

“Victoria’s personal courage and her unerring sense of her relationship with her people were responsible for it all.” (It being “universal and spontaneous outpouring of loyalty and affection”)

The late nineteenth century seems to have been open season on royalty. Murphy relates several parallel shoots taken at other monarchs. By 1918, all the monarchies of central Europe were no more.

“Trust in her subjects was instinct to [Victoria.]”

Review: The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch Four Stars

Review: The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch

Four Stars

“War has an appetite that cannot be satisfied by quotas.” Hegesippus

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives was the primary source for the history of Rome and Greece during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this volume covers the period after Athens fall from supremacy in the Greek-speaking world.

“… and deliver the state from the habit of pandering to the mob, a disease scarcely less pernicious than tyranny itself.” (Some things never change)

Plutarch’s Lives influenced art and literature as well as politics and history. Shakespeare based his ancient history plays on Plutarch, occasionally quoting him verbatim.

“The truth is that the great majority of mankind are more offended by a contemptuous word than a hostile action, and find it easier to put up with an injury than an insult.”

Ian Scott-Kilvert’s English translation is clear and readable, if occasionally colloquial. Every day English has evolved since the 1970s.

“To show kindness only to one’s friends and benefactors is no proof of having acquired such self-control: the real test for a man who has been wronged to be able to show compassion and moderation to the evil-doers.”

The serious student of history may look elsewhere for greater authority, but the rest of us are enlightened and entertained by Plutarch’s commentary on the lives of the movers and shakers during a time which reads to us like epic fantasy: Descendants of Heracles, mythic tasks, loyalty and betrayal, heroes and tyrants.

“One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely.” Pyrrhus

Book Review: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (Four Stars)

Book Review: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Four Stars

“Instead of glorying in his might, he feared its terrible weight’s potential misuse.”

An encyclopedic survey of the life of George Washington. Well done, but Chernow was so heavily engaged in selling his theories of Washington’s personality and style that parts felt like the 2016 election campaign. “The most interior of the founders.” Pages of pithy epigrams by and about Washington. At 900 pages, it’s hardly “crisply paced”

“Things seldom happened accidentally to George Washington, but he managed them with consummate skill that they often seemed to happen accidentally.”

Modern availability and cataloguing of founder correspondence allows Chernow to explore both sides of many conversations, facilitating greater understanding of the bonds and divisions between Washington and Continue reading

Book Review: The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty by Ben Macintyre

Three Stars

“[He had] plenty of time for morals; it was laws he disdained.”

Award-winning well-researched and written biography of a criminal no one heard of … even in his own day. His most infamous crime was the theft of a Gainsborough portrait, then the highest priced art in the world. Along the way, he burglarized, robbed, or forged on five continents and became the model for one of literature’s most famous criminal: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.

“Crime need not involve thuggery.”

A notable difference between Adam Worth and the fictional crime lord is that Worth avoided violence. He regarded carrying, much less using, fire arms a sign of Continue reading

Book Review: Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry (Four Stars)

Book Review: Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

Four Stars out of Five

“Winning wars [is] in the details.”

Today few people remember John J. Pershing. A century ago (actually 97 years ago) he was a hero. The first American to wear five star rank. Who was he? Where did he come from? What was he like? This biography explores all that without the hundreds of pages of trivia so many modern biographies include.

In 1917 American hadn’t fought a major war in over fifty years. (The Spanish-American War hardly qualified, though we stumbled through that one, too.) We had few officers nor enlisted with combat experience. We had swell a thirty thousand man army to over two million: recruit or draft them; organize, train and equip them; deploy them to Europe, feed, move, supply them bullets and bandages; resist French and English insistence that they be “amalgamated” into their armies, and beat the Germans. Pershing is largely responsible of our success.

And most of our success and failure in World War Two stemmed from lessons Pershing taught subordinates like Marshall, Eisenhower and Patton, which unfortunately the politicians of both parties refused to learn. If we’d followed his advice, we would have been more prepared in 1941.

He was an authentic leader. Frankly, he wasn’t a likeable person. He hadn’t planned on an Army career; he suffered personal and profession loss; he cared more about winning than being liked. He wasn’t loved by everyone, until after he’d done the seeming impossible, then everyone acted as if they’d loved him all along.

Lesson for today: Pershing pacified the Moros of Mindanao (the Philippines) in 1905 by getting to know them, moving among them, treating them fairly, and only as a last resort using force. And when he used force it was overwhelming and total. He was the reason the Moros welcomed MacArthur back in 1944.

Quibble: How could Pershing have graduated 30th in the 26-man West Point class of 1886?

“If you have a fall—mental, moral or physical—pick yourself up and start over again immediately. If you do, in the long run life won’t beat you.”

Book Review: The Return of George Washington by Edward J. Larson (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson

Three Stars out of Five

While this volume purports to be a biography of Washington during the critical gap between his service as Commander of the Continental Army and his inauguration as President of the United States, it in fact spreads far beyond in time and subject matter. For example, many pages are devoted to the Constitutional Convention with hardly a word about Washington.

Larson’s scholarship lays one popular (though widely disbelieved) myth to rest, that of the war-weary Washington retiring to Mount Vernon and not involving himself in politics until his nation called him to serve as its first President. Even before he left New York City upon resigning his commission, Washington was concerned that the new country’s weak government until the Articles of Confederation. That his concerns were expressed privately rather than publicly reflected the nature of the man, and followed his lifelong pattern. Washington vigorously pursued improving himself and his estate, but he also recognized that his prosperity and that of the nation were fused. His life is a study of a man very aware of the unique position he occupied and imbued with the sense of destiny in his future.

A good book, well written.