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RBG (2018) PG

81njbw6zvql-_sy445_It's no surprise to people who know me well that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my personal heroes (and in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G. via Lin-Manuel Miranda -- "and if ya don't know, now ya know").  When I found out that there was a documentary coming out on her life, I knew I would be seeing that in the theaters—but now RBG is out on DVD for everyone to enjoy!  The documentary includes interviews with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her family members, political figures, authors of the book The Notorious RBG, and many more.  It covers her life from childhood to current service and includes footage from her confirmation hearing, as well as audio files from court cases.  What struck me as the best part of the film though were the moments that we, the public, don't always get to see -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg interacting with her granddaughter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg watching Kate McKinnon play her on Saturday Night Live, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life with her beloved husband. I also have to admit that I was delighted to see information on her pop culture influence, including one of the best baby costumes ever: Baby RBG.

I think this is an important documentary for anyone with a political interest to see.  U. S. Supreme Court Justice Bader Ginsburg's friendship with Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their political oppositions, is something we can all learn from.

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (2017)

jacketI adored Denise Kiernan’s first book (The Girls of Atomic City) on a little known piece of history. Now, she turns her attention to the creation of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

In The Last Castle, Kiernan details the lives of Edith and George Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt) along with the construction of the massive house and the development (and protection) of the surrounding forests and land. The author effortlessly weaves the threads of the stories of people, places, and events in American history from the Gilded Age to WWII. An engaging and fascinating slice of history.

 
 
 
 

The Crown. Season 1 (2016) TV-MA

the-crown-2016For anyone obsessed with Britain's royal family (like me!), The Crown is a perfect blend of drama and actual history, creating a highly enjoyable television series.

The first season of The Crown covers the years 1947-1955, which includes famous events such as Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Philip, King George VI's passing, and Queen Elizabeth's coronation. But there are also a fair amount of things I had no idea happened in England, like the Great Smog of 1952.

I spent a lot of time after episodes doing research and now you don't have to; a companion book was released that documents the differences between series and true history.

If you're waiting on the third royal baby to be born in April or Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's marriage in May, this is a fabulous way to pass the time!

Watch season 1 of The Crown on DVD or borrow a Roku to stream it via Netflix. Stay tuned—next week, Jez reviews season 2.

 

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon (2017)

In 1917, a ship full of explosives en route from New York to France exploded in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia. Killing 2,000 people and wounding 9,000 more, the explosion leveled 2.5 square miles of Canada. In The Great Halifax Explosion, author John U. Bacon combines engaging human interest stories with what happened leading up to and after the explosion (which was the largest in the world until the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945). He introduces readers to the families of Halifax and details their daily lives in this fascinating story. For fans of history books with a personal narrative.

If you visit Halifax, you can see the Mont Blanc Anchor. Learn more from Canada’s Historic Places.

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King (2016)

In this engagingly readable mix of art, history, and biography, author Ross King details the later years of Claude Monet’s life. Set against the backdrop of WWI, Mad Enchantment documents Monet’s work on paintings both large and small as well as his life in Giverny, France (and his relationships with other artists such as Renoir and Rodin). The prolific artist, although hindered by grief and failing eyesight, produced the massive paintings found in l’Orangerie in Paris.

The Art Institute of Chicago plays a role in the book, too. Did you know its representatives tried to purchase the paintings that ended up in l’Orangerie? At least we have many other Monet works in Chicago. Whether you’re planning a trip to Paris or Chicago, or just want to learn more about one of the greats (who was not always admired during his lifetime), I recommend this book—I lost track of the number of times I thought, “I didn’t know that.”

 

Home Fires. Seasons 1 & 2 (2015-2016)

Inspired by the book Jambusters by Julie Summers, this BBC TV show is set in rural Cheshire, in the village of Great Paxford. Home Fires showcases the Women's Institutes’ contribution in boosting morale on the home front during WWII. It’s the story of a group of inspirational women who are left to carry on during one of history's most trying times. We share their emotional struggles, their fear, their sorrows, and their determination to "carry on" no matter what.

 

Willowbrook Ballroom by Bonnie Classen (2011)

willowbrookballroomOn October 28, 2016, the historic Willowbrook Ballroom burned down. The legendary ballroom and banquet hall in Willow Springs started as the Oh Henry Ballroom in 1921. It had its heyday in the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s featuring bands such as Jimmy Dorsey and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When ballroom dancing was on the decline in the late 1960s and 1970s, Willowbrook Ballroom featured Chubby Checker and such bands as The Cryan' Shames. Supposedly it was the last place Resurrection Mary danced before she left and was hit by a car. There have been sightings of her ghost in the Chicago area.

Check out Willowbrook Ballroom by Bonnie Classen to reminisce.

 

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel (2013)

astronautAnyone who grew up during the race to the moon era can identify with the mystery and mystique of the astronauts. This nonfiction account from the perspective of their wives may disenchant some, but readers will have a whole new respect and admiration for these great American women. In The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel does a good job of presenting the facts and opinions through extensive research and interviews in a story-like format. The epilogue ties everything up in a neat package explaining what happened after the space race was won and life returned to normal.

Savage Harvest: a tale of cannibals, colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's tragic quest for primitive art by Carl Hoffman (2014)

savageharvestWere there cannibals in New Guinea even during the mid-twentieth century? Savage Harvest suggests there were and that they may have been involved in the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961. Michael was there collecting native art for a New York museum founded by his father, Nelson, but was lost, never to be found when his catamaran overturned in rough weather. Michael’s colleague Rene Wassing was rescued the day after Michael swam away from the overturned craft in hope of reaching shore. Carl Hoffman speculates what may have happened to Michael based mainly on hints and rumors he discovers in 2012 while tracing Michael’s journey among the Asmat people in New Guinea. Savage Harvest gives a beguiling view of Asmat culture, art, history, and superstitions while trying to uncover the mystery of Michael’s disappearance.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

deadwakeIn his acknowledgments, Erik Larson reveals his own enjoyment in researching and writing the account of this final voyage. In Dead Wake, the reader is allowed to share by introduction to this great ship, some of the passengers and crew, and then reading along with them about this 1915 Atlantic crossing. Even though there has been reports of German submarine activity, Captain Turner is reassuring as he speaks of the ship’s great size and speed. No one seems afraid but the reader knows what to expect. Sometimes the narrative departs the ship to see how President Wilson is doing after his wife’s death, how the British secret service is using information gained from breaking the German code, or what Churchill might do to bring America into the war.

The reader sees both sides as he rides along with Kptlt (Captain) Schwieger of the German submarine service on entering British waters looking for targets but avoiding British warships. Although deadly, these early submarines are slow and most incommodious for the crew as compared to surface vessels. Back on the Lusitania, lifeboats are uncovered as it enters Irish waters. And then nearly 100 years later, scuba diving archaeologists voice respect for the lost souls down below.

Mrs. Kennedy and Me by Clint Hill (2012)

mrskennedyThis book is a wonderful accolade to Jacqueline Kennedy. Clint Hill's story is beautifully written as he relives the happiness and agony of his time spent as Mrs. Kennedy's secret service agent.

Watch Clint Hill discuss Mrs. Kennedy and Me on C-SPAN.

Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation by Ann Bausum (2014)

stubbySergeant Stubby appeals to both military history buffs and dog lovers. This remarkable story follows James Robert Conroy and his brave canine companion, Stubby, from their early days to the battlefields of France during World War I, to their homecoming as heroes and then retirement. The soldiers’ lives during wartime are contrasted with the bond between soldier and dog. Photographs of Conroy and Stubby enhance the book.

In 1917, Conroy enlisted in the Connecticut National Guard and his unit became part of the 26th (Yankee Division) of the U.S. Army. Stubby was a stray that showed up at training on Yale University’s athletic fields and favored Conroy. He learned how to follow along with the soldiers as they paraded on the athletic fields and even learned how to salute. Stubby was smuggled and stowed away on the ship taking Conroy’s unit to France. Supposedly after officers became aware of Stubby’s presence, Stubby charmed them and became the official mascot of the unit.

James Robert Conroy returned to the States as a hero and Stubby became a celebrity.

Ann Bausum’s book was released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of World War I. If you are interested in reading further about World War I see All Time Faves: Our Favorite books about World War I.

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter (2009)

The Monuments Men is a remarkable story of a unique chapter in the history of World War II. The author uses the key battles of the war in Italy, France, and Germany to document the story of the men who risked their lives saving the fine art treasure of Europe, which General Eisenhower saw as the symbols of “all that we are fighting to preserve.”

As Adolf Hitler was attempting rule the western world, his armies were seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. A special force was created by the Allies to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture. Behind enemy lines, often unarmed, these American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Monuments Men, found and saved many priceless and irreplaceable pieces of art.

This book is recognition of the work of these brave individuals and a very good read.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter (2009)

My grandfather was a WWII veteran, plus I've always been fascinated by history. He spent time in Hawaii, New Guinea, and the Philippines, so my explorations of the war focused primarily on the home front and the Pacific theater.

My forays into WWII fiction covered Poland, England, and France, among others, but I had never before considered this slice of history. What happened to the irreplaceable artwork during wartime? Robert M. Edsel (with Brett Witter) explores that question in this fascinating study of a group of monuments men. In the real world, they were architects, museum directors, and conservationists. Now, they were racing across Europe in a war zone to preserve cultural treasures.

I love a personal take on history. It's why I'm a fan of Unbroken, The Girls of Atomic City, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The Monuments Men is another exhilarating tale from the front lines. It's a gripping combination of art, history, biography, war, and adventure.

Oh, and George Clooney turned it into a movie. Learn more about these heroes.
 

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013)

For many years, authors have written about Jesus of Nazareth using the Christian Bible, historical works and their imagination. Recognized history outside of the Bible has little to say about Jesus (he was a Jew who was crucified under Roman authority) but much to say about his effect on western culture and civilization. Now in Zealot, Reza Aslan writes a description of Palestine at the time of Jesus to show how the man from the Gospels may have fit into that tumultuous time when our calendar began.

Aslan, a well-educated scholar of Christianity and other religions, writes to define Jesus as a special man much like other Zealots of his time but one whose miracles are not questioned through later centuries of controversy about his birth, divinity, and resurrection. Aslan emphasizes the confrontational aspects of encounters and parables in the Gospels to paint Jesus as a revolutionary against the Roman and Jewish temple authorities.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Aslan believes Christian writers moderated the zealous teaching of Jesus from a revolutionary stance to one of a Kingdom beyond this world with mercy, justice and peace as its goals. Zealotry, that is excessive zeal and fanaticism, was seen to endanger the early Christian community by inviting violent repression from Roman authority. Aslan doesn’t give much value to the 2000 years of witnesses beginning with the Apostle Paul viewing Jesus as the Son of God. Christians may not find this work a best choice for Christmas reading.