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Spotlight: American Musicals

Do you love the American musical? If so, then don’t miss the series of books on Broadway musicals by Ethan Mordden. The first book of the series, Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s (1997) tells about all the composers, directors, and stars of the era. The series continues with a book for every decade up through the 1970s and ending with The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical (2004).

Here’s the books in between:

The Girls of Atomic City: the untold story of the women who helped win World War II by Denise Kiernan (2013)

Shrouded in secrecy, Oak Ridge didn't officially exist despite its population of over 70,000 residents at its peak in 1945. Denise Kiernan unveils the amazing true story of the government’s efforts to harvest fuel for the atomic bomb by building industrial factories – and an entire town – from scratch in rural Tennessee. As a history major with an avid interest in World War II, I had never heard of this – so I’m guessing many others are unaware of this aspect of the Manhattan Project.
The Girls of Atomic City traces the lives of several women working in Oak Ridge for the war effort – which is about all they knew: that their job would help end the war, but no more. Workers were given just enough information to properly complete their jobs. Part military base (guards patrolled entrances), part small town America, Oak Ridge housed military and medical personnel, scientists, and skilled and unskilled laborers from all walks of life from across the United States.

Read this book – it provides a fascinating glimpse into a little known part of American history and effortlessly weaves history, science, biography, and ethics through vignettes about several strong women.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011)

Berlin in 1933 was no place for a peaceful university professor with a fun loving son, and a recently separated daughter looking for romance and adventure. Professor Dodd was not Roosevelt’s first choice for ambassador to Germany, but he accepted the appointment thinking it would be a good career move and give him time to complete his historical writing on the American Civil War.

The reader is greeted with an outrage by brown shirt paramilitary against an American doctor even before the Professor and his family arrive in Berlin. This outrage and others to come are initially regarded by the Ambassador and his daughter as isolated incidents that occur as Germany seeks to find its place among the powerful nations of the world. It takes some time for the Ambassador and his family to realize the dark nature of this German government.

Then in 1934, it became clear to the Dodds that the Nazis could not be trusted and would resort to clandestine and harsh measures to attain their goals. Dodd, through his critical communications, loses favor with both the U.S. State Department and his German hosts so that he and his family are required to leave Germany at the end of 1934. The reader can follow the narrative through this two year period with interest and gain some understanding of how the world did not recognize the great danger that was to come.

Find a copy of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson today.
 

Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick by Paul Dickson (2012)

Bill Veeck was at different times the owner of the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns, and the Chicago White Sox (twice). Many people remember Bill Veeck as the baseball owner who brought Eddie Gaedel, a 3’7” tall man in as a pinch hitter in a baseball game between the St. Louis Browns and the Detroit Tigers in 1951, or as the White Sox owner responsible for Disco Demolition Night. Still others may remember him for the funny and outrageous but harmless promotions he conducted as owner of the Indians, Browns, and White Sox.

But he was much more than that.  He was a great humanitarian, an advocate of civil rights, a baseball fan's owner who cared about the fans, a player's owner who cared about his players, an employer who cared about his employees, an innovator who introduced many changes in the game, a patriot, a thinker, a listener, an avaricious reader and man who despite a severe physical handicap would never quit.

This is easily the best biography I have read in the last twenty years and maybe the best ever.  This book is especially for White Sox, Indians, and Browns fans. It's for Cub fans too, as Veeck and his father had a profound influence on the Cubs as well (the ivy on the walls, Harry Caray and the singing of  "Take out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch and others.)  But it is also for any baseball fan and for anyone who appreciates the story of man who lived a truly remarkable life. Read Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick by Paul Dickson.

Chicago’s State Street Christmas Parade by Robert P. Ledermann (2004)

Reminisce about Chicago’s Christmas parade and other unique Chicago Christmas experiences. The first Chicago Christmas parade started in 1934 and signaled the start of the Christmas season. Although I never attended the parade, I enjoyed reading about it and viewing the photos of the floats, bands, and celebrities during various eras in this book.
More than half of the book features other Chicago institutions featured prominently at Christmastime: Carson Pirie Scott and Company, Berghoff Restaurant, Miller’s Pub, and Marshall Field’s. It brought back memories of going downtown and viewing the magical windows of Carson’s, Field’s, Wieboldt’s, and Goldblatt’s on State Street. Marshall Field’s was also well known for its main floor decorations and the great tree in the Walnut Room. Ledermann also wrote Christmas on State Street, 1940’s and Beyond (2002).

 

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart (2007)

Summer at Tiffany is a delightful portrait of a moment in time. During the summer of 1945, Marjorie and her roommate Marty leave the University of Iowa for New York City. While jobs aren't quite as easy to procure as promised, they get hired as the first female pages (runners) at Tiffany’s flagship store.

More than 60 years later, Marjorie recounts that special summer: celebrity sightings (Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich – did you know her role in WWII?), saving pennies for a few treats, dancing with soldiers, her own summer romance, and experiencing V-J Day in Times Square.

When I think of 1945, World War II immediately comes to mind. Marjorie's story is a different slice of that year. As she said, everyone she knew was affected. Yet the story she shares is a 21-year-old small town girl experiencing the big city for the first time.

 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

Unbroken, read by Edward Hermann, is the bestselling story of the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who became a bombardier in World War II, was stranded on a life boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean, and eventually captured by the Japanese. Hillenbrand, author of the bestseller Seabiscuit, is a gifted story teller who meticulously details this almost unbelievable ordeal of pain and suffering. Yes, this is truly a book about resilience, and you will find yourself riveted to your seat as you listen to this well narrated, well told, true tale.

 

Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy (2004)

Excellent mixture of a 1990s trip to the southern tip of South America with tales of past voyages, beginning with Magellan through missionary journeys in the early 20th century. The stories bring in current friction between Chile and Argentina as well as conflicts among the English, Spanish, and the Aborigines in Terra de Fuega. These adventurous explorations leave a salty taste for all of us would be sailors.

Start your adventure with Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy today!



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Rounding the Horn: being a story of williwaws and windjammers, Drake, Darwin, murdered missionaries and naked natives--a deck's-eye view of Cape Horn by Dallas Murphy (2004)
Excellent mixture of a 1990s trip to the southern tip of South America with tales of past voyages, beginning with Magellan through missionary journeys in the early 20th century. The stories bring in current friction between Chile and Argentina as well as conflicts among the English, Spanish, and the Aborigines in Terra de Fuega. These adventurous explorations leave a salty taste for all of us would be sailors.

Nonfiction, travel, history, adventure

Spotlight: Social History of the Edwardian Age

With the popularity of the series Downton Abbey, you may enjoy books telling the stories life during the Edwardian Age. First, explore these tales of servant life: Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey" by Margaret Powell (1968) and The Real Downton Abbey: An Unofficial Guide to the Period which Inspired the Hit TV Show by Jacky Hyams (2011)

Then catch a glimpse into the world of the aristocracy with these titles. The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (2011) and Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon (2011)

These books examine the social history of two ways of life during the Edwardian age in England. They examine the difficulties, the behaviors, advantages, of both classes. In the 1800s, large families were the norm. Many children of the lower class were sent into service to earn money to help their struggling families. The labor supply was cheap and plentiful.

With the advent of World War I and the slaughter of millions of men both lower class and aristocracy, more higher paying jobs opened for both men and women. The servant class numbers began to shrink and a way of life unique to the times started on its way to extinction.

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy (2011)

In this impressive work, there is one book and 8 CDs, so you can read and listen; I did both. Mostly I read, and then listened to catch a vocal impression of Jacqueline Kennedy.

These first of a kind conversations with Arthur Schlesinger were recorded within a year of President’s Kennedy’s death. Jacqueline Kennedy, with her strong sense of history, documented and preserved her first hand recollections of her husband’s political colleagues, friends, and events as she remembered them. They were sealed and put in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library per her wishes.

Now in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, the Kennedy family has released these insightful and revealing tapes. So much has been written and conjectured about this family; it is refreshing to hear the very human memories of Jacqueline.

Reversely, the life of Jacqueline and her perspective are also illuminated. She reveals so much about herself as she expresses her views of her husband. It’s fascinating.

There so many people that the average reader will often refer to the footnotes. I would also add that these are the thoughts of a young woman, steeped in shock and grief, who bravely tried to preserve her husband’s legacy.

Check here to see if the book is available now.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

 In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011)

A college professor and his family relocate to Berlin to serve as an ambassador in the years leading up to WWII. Hitler is rising. The family’s daughter befriends folk from every side of the coin. The U.S. government wants the professor to make sure Germany repays its debt. The U.S. government does not see Hitler as a threat.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
Laura Hillenbrand, the author of this book and the earlier book Seabiscuit, has written another winner. This book hooks you in from page one. It’s a great story of an American POW held by the Japanese during World War II. I learned a lot from this book, too.

By the way, did you know the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor was yesterday?

The Pacific

The Pacific (2010) TV-MA
This ten part HBO miniseries offers a realistic and horrifying view of World War II in the Pacific. The series is based on the memoirs of two marines who were there, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, and the story of Congressional Medal of Honor winner Sgt. John Basilone. Some episodes are devoted almost entirely to specific battles: Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima. Others show the marines on R&R in Australia, on medical leave, or in basic training.

The producers (who include Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg) purposely used relatively unknown actors so that the viewer wouldn't be distracted by recognizing well-known stars showing up in cameos ala The Longest Day (1962).

Check out the books that served as inspiration:
Did you know? The 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into WWII is Wednesday, December 7.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Based on the eight pages of acknowledgments by the author, it can take a village to tell a story. And what a powerful, amazing, awesome story it is…

Born in 1917, Louie Zamperini was a precocious child, a prankster, and later a runner. He smashed California track records as a student at USC and raced at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
During World War II, as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps, he flew combat missions in the Pacific Theater. On May 27, 1943, his B-24 crashed into the ocean. Louie and pilot Alan Phillips survived 47 days at sea, only to be captured by the Japanese.

Unbroken is the unbelievable story of Louie. The detail is amazing yet not overwhelming. Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit) has a wonderful storytelling ability that makes 400 pages fly by. And her story is fascinating in its own right. For over half her life, she has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. This Newsweek article provides more about Hillenbrand, her relationship with Louie, and the book.

God in America

God in America (2010)
This six hour documentary looks at the settling of America, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, and the issue of religion and politics in America from a strictly religious history point of view.

The Evangelical Protestant religion of many of the early settlers made them resentful of either church leaders or kings telling them what to do. Itinerant Methodist ministers traveling in the wilds west of the Appalachians made Methodism the fastest growing denomination in the US until the battle over slavery broke it into northern and southern denominations. The rights of Catholics and Jews to have their children free from Protestant religious training in public schools led to a greater separation of church and state.

In postwar America, Billy Graham and his crusade against "Godless" communism made him the best known religious figure in America. These are just a few of the interesting takes on American history found in this program which was created by a cooperative effort of The American Experience and Frontline.

For more information, visit the companion website.