A. Scott Berg
Most people know two things about Charles Lindbergh: he was
the first man to complete a non-stop flight between New York
and Paris, and his infant son was kidnapped and murdered in what
many still consider the Crime of the Century. The trans-Atlantic
flight made him the "first superstar" of the era of
instantaneous media, according to his biographer, Scott Berg,
though it wasn't something he sought out or enjoyed once he achieved
it. Worse, the fame and wealth that followed was directly connected
to the son's tragic death.
Lindbergh's two-pronged status as a tragically suffering hero
was not to last, though. While it is not as widely remembered
today, Lindbergh's receiving the Service Cross of the Golden
Eagle from Hermann Goering in 1938 and his subsequent role as
an outspoken leader of the America First movement turned much
of the American public against him, and FDR even refused to let
Lindbergh fly combat planes in World War II because of his isolationist
stance. (As Lindbergh's sister-in-law later commented, "Imagine,
in just fifteen years he had gone from Jesus to Judas!")
But Lindbergh worked as a test pilot in private industry to improve
fighter planes during the war, and after the war ended, he helped
launch America's space program.
What most people don't know is that Lindbergh also helped
design the precursor for the first artificial heart and later--when
he began to worry about the environmental effects of easy flight--traveled
around the world supporting environmentalist issues. (He circled
the globe five times in 1969 alone.) It was a diverse career
that spanned half a century--and an era. As Berg notes, "A
friend of the first man to fly an airplane, Lindbergh lived long
enough in a fast-moving world to befriend the first man to walk
on the moon."
Berg certainly makes use of the more exciting aspects of Lindbergh's
life to keep the narrative moving along nicely--but it would
probably be hard to make a Lindbergh biography boring. Still,
given the sheer volume of previously unknown material that Berg
was able to bring through his unprecedented access to the Lindbergh
family materials (and his unwillingness to let that access soften
his take on such things as Lindbergh's involvement in America
First), Berg certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize he received
for this work earlier this year.
It's a highly readable, meticulously researched book--recommended
for history buffs and popular culture readers alike.
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of the Human
Remember the good old days when professors taught you to look
at the artist's work rather than at the artist? Remember when
we all assumed history, politics, race and gender didn't mean
squat when it came to judging a given work's artistic
Let's state the obvious, dreadful truth straight up: we now
live in an era of smart-ass literary theorists hell-bent on cold-cocking
their readers into submission with the latest (heavy-handed,
absurd) --ism. Humanists had the hell kicked out of them in the
mid-seventies and early eighties by the francophile structuralists
and post-structuralists, who went into their own crash-and-burn
free fall when the--formalists, look away--multiculturalists
goose-stepped into dominance and threw it all out with the
shrill, vindictive battle cry that gender, race, politics and--most
importantly--cultural diversity should determine a work's merits.
Multiculturalism is the reverse eugenics of our day: the weak,
they say, shall inherit the earth.
But now, in a swirl of desert sand and hot air, a figure--not
lean, exactly, and with that scarf hardly a Clint Eastwood mirage--appears
and stands defiantly against the smart-ass theorists and speaks.
Formalists of the world: unite. The cause is not dead.
Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human--a
three-inch-thick slab of swaggering diatribe--is equal parts
audacity and brilliance guaranteed to stun mute contemporary
theorists spouting what Bloom calls the "arbitrary and ideologically
imposed contextualization, the staple of our bad time."
And here's the beautiful part: Bloom does it with a straightforward,
old-fashioned humanist thesis: while characters that predate
Shakespeare age and die, nobody before Shakespeare actually changes
within themselves--and inward-looking change
is the fundamental aspect of being human.
Odysseus, Bloom would argue, wasn't changed by his
ten-year journey back to Ithaca. The cunning for which he had
been known back in Ithaca helped conquer Troy, and it overcame,
in turn, everything the gods put in his way to block his passage
home. And once he was home, he was merely an older, still cunning
version of Odysseus. At heart, the perilous journey didn't actually
change Odysseus. He was simply forced to undergo an arduous physical
journey before he could return to the throne as the cunning,
short person he was before the war began.
Shakespeare, according to Bloom, changed all that because
he gave us the world's first literary characters whose inner
selves changed through their experience: "What Shakespeare
invents are ways of representing human changes, alterations not
only caused by flaws and decay but effected by the will as well,
and by the will's temporal vulnerabilities." In its most
radical form, one might say (with Bloom) that the notion of an
'inner self' itself began with Shakespeare. The self as a moral
agent is a long-lived notion; but personality--the concept of
human inwardness--begins with Shakespeare. And his two greatest
characters, Hamlet and Falstaff, "are the invention of the
human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize
To back up these claims, Bloom analyzes every one of Shakespeare's
plays, individually and at length. It is an arduous undertaking,
reflecting Bloom's having taught Shakespeare nearly exclusively
for the past twenty years.
The project--all seven hundred and forty-five pages of it--is
audacious, brilliantly cunning and--for traditional critics,
Back to Archived Short Takes
Clancy fans looking for something new this season from the
techno-thriller master will have to settle for this new paperback
edition of last year's bestseller. This time out, John Clark
(an intelligent but tough hero from three earlier Clancy titles)
has formed a top-secret multinational counter-terrorist team
called Rainbow to fight the bad guys cropping up to replace the
Soviet Union's sadly lost perennial favorites. Happily, Rainbow's
operational just in time to quell a series of terrorist attacks
masterminded by a man hell-bent on destroying the world--or so
The action and technical details here are strong, as always.
But while the characters are better drawn than some of Clancy's
earlier efforts, the material between explosions can bog down
a bit and grow tedious. The crux of the problem seems to be Clancy's
constant, flat narrative pace: never faster, never slower (decidedly
a bad thing, in a book this long). Clancy seems never to have
met a jump cut or ellipsis he liked. Still, the individual terrorist
attacks--and Rainbow's response--are wonderfully presented.
As for the plot, skeptical readers may have a few problems
with Clancy's repeatedly putting the world at stake, book after
book--but then maybe they should just switch to decaf and settle
down with a nice, quiet Agatha Christie.
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and Marylouise Oates
In a plot that seems to guarantee at least a few explosions,
Capitol Venture's Norie Gorzack, a likeable, modest Democrat
appointed to fill a dead senator's seat, is facing a mean-spirited
special election against a "values"-spouting Republican
with ties to right-wing militias.
Kind of like mixing up a chemical explosives cocktail and
shaking it vigorously, right?
Gorzack's troubles start almost immediately. At a public appearance
with a fellow Democrat--a Congressman from her home state of
Pennsylvania--Gorzack is pushed off a platform by a group of
protesters. And hours later--after telling Gorzack that he has
something important to discuss--the Congressman's body is found
jammed between two mailboxes in a local post office. The body
is wrapped in brown paper, and a handwritten note on the paper
says, "Return to U.S. Capitol. Washington, D.C."
Against her staff's adamant requests that she concentrate
on raising campaign funds, Gorzack delves into the dead Congressman's
causes, hoping to solve his murder and advance the causes they
both believed in.
But it's never quite that easy, is it?
Before she cracks the case, Gorzack has to help a group of
Vietnam vets get answers about their mysteriously high incidence
of a rare form of leukemia and wrestle control of her re-election
campaign from an image-over-substance campaign director. And
all the while, the bodies seem to pile up. A man on his way to
a hearing on the vets issue is murdered before he can testify.
One of the Senator's staff members is run off the road and left
for dead. And a militia group is posting the Senator's daily
schedule on the Web, seemingly begging someone to show and do
her bodily harm.
If they haven't already arranged it themselves, of course.
Despite its chemical-cocktail plot, Capitol Venture
is what the publishing world likes to call a 'cuddly'--it's an
entertaining page turner that doesn't unduly challenge the reader
or leave her feeling unnerved by dangerous, edgy suggestions
that we're all floating unprotected in an amoral world. The titillation
to be had by Gorzack's brushes with death and the right wing
are relatively mild, and the text is almost wholly lacking in
profanity and violence (and forget about sex altogether). It
is, in short, a comforting book, best read with a fire crackling
at one's feet and a hot toddy steaming on the table at your elbow.
As a particularly strong bonus feature, Mikulski and Oates
give their readers an engaging, realistic portrait of a Senator's
hectic, often confusing daily life. The realism is aided, of
course, by Mikulski's own service as a three-term Senator from
Maryland, and one can't help believing that much of the insider
material was conceived as a platform for Mikulski's venting anger
about what she thinks is wrong with politics today.
Back to Archived Short Takes
A Man Should Know About Style
and Ted Allen
As you might expect, given that it's based on a column from
Esquire, this is an entertaining mix of humor and legitimate
fashion tips for men who want to succeed but somehow failed to
pick up on simple style pointers when they were kids and their
mother sent them back into their rooms to change their blue plaid
shirt and purple striped pants.
But wait--I know what you're thinking: how could a man be
on the verge of success and not know how to dress for it?
Have you ever seen men playing golf at an exclusive private
club? Remember: most of those guys are millionaires. And they
obviously didn't listen to their mothers when it came to loud
plaids. Success doesn't breed style, but--as Omelianuk and Allen
would have us believe--style can breed success.
So what are their tips?
A few examples:
- Never hold a cigarette between your thumb and index finger,
with the palm up.
Nazis do that.
- Hats will make a comeback someday.
It is not today.
Paisley, too, will be back, but you could ignore it.
- Should you find yourself in a four-button suit coat:
Unfasten all buttons. Remove. Discard.
It's still a bit early for Christmas shopping, but you might
consider this book when you're looking for a stocking stuffer
for that poorly dressed man in your life. It's got a classy look
and comes from an upscale magazine column, which should impress
him--and you can always pitch it as a humor book. Read it aloud,
laugh heartily at the jokes. But don't let him skip the real
Who knows--maybe he'll have a life-changing, transformative
experience and stop wearing dark socks with his shorts. And if
that happens, of course, it'll be a gift for both of you.
Back to Archived Short Takes
and the Madman:
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English
The 'madman' of Simon Winchester's fascinating (if relatively
brief) history is William Chester Minor, a Union Army surgeon
of good New England stock who lost his mind, according to the
popular stories, after he was forced to brand the letter 'D'
into the cheek of an Irish deserter in the Civil War. After the
war, he became alarmingly promiscuous and grew increasingly paranoid.
He was classified 'delusional,' and eventually he was institutionalized
in the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.
(It would later become St. Elizabeth's Hospital; most famously,
Ezra Pound was kept there, after his trial for treason in World
After eighteen months, he was declared "incapacitated
by causes arising in the line of duty" and was retired from
the Army with full pay. Then, in early 1871, he was allowed to
leave. That fall, he boarded a London-bound steamer. Eventually,
he settled into a room in the rough neighborhood of Lambeth,
where he painted watercolors and claimed Irishmen were persecuting
him. Months passed, and the delusions increased. Finally, while
wildly delusional, Minor ran from his room in the middle of the
night and fired four shots at a man on his way to the dawn shift
at the local Red Lion brewery. The man died, but Minor was found
not guilty by reason of insanity. He was, the court announced,
to be "detained in safe custody, until Her Majesty's Pleasure
He languished for a while, though he occupied two of the better
cells, had painting supplies and was building a good private
library. Then he read a notice calling for volunteers to help
compile word-use quotations for the mammoth project that would
become the Oxford English Dictionary (at the time, it
was called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles).
Immediately, Minor thought he had found his calling.
John Augustus Henry Murray, the man who headed up the OED
project and the 'professor' of Winchester's title, had no idea
that the man who sent in the well-organized 'catchwords' was,
in fact, a patient in an insane asylum. Presumably, he thought
Minor was a retired doctor in need of a hobby--or possibly a
doctor on the asylum's staff. Whatever Murray's understanding,
he soon realized that Minor was indispensable to the project
because he had developed a unique system of exhaustive word lists
drawn from his private library collection. If the OED
editors were facing a particularly troubling word just before
going to press, they'd write to Minor, and he'd check his lists
and send along lengthy, meticulously written references. He had,
in a sense, made "a dictionary within a dictionary,"
as Winchester calls it.
Minor sent his catchword slips to Murray for twenty years,
with many of them making their way into the finished dictionary.
(Murray himself wrote that "So enormous have been Dr. Minor's
contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily
illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone.")
In all that time, according to the popular versions of the story,
Minor never left the asylum and no one knew his secret. But when
he failed to attend the 'great dictionary dinner' in the Queen's
Jubilee Year, Murray supposedly wrote to Minor, demanding to
know when he could come visit Minor in his own abode. In a wildly
popular account that appeared in the Strand Magazine in
September 1915, Murray traveled by train to the asylum and, after
mistaking the superintendent of the asylum for Minor, learned
the grim truth about the studious volunteer.
It's a great story, but as Winchester conclusively demonstrates,
the initial meeting didn't happen that way--or even in that year.
Using correspondence he found in the attic of one of Minor's
few remaining relations, Winchester sets the record straight--definitively,
it would seem. While Winchester's version isn't quite as tidy,
it's a touching story, nonetheless, and readers looking for a
great non-fiction mystery with a definitive solution (relatively
rare in cultural histories) won't be disappointed. That Winchester
manages to cast his story on a larger stage--offering up a brief
history of English dictionaries as well as placing Minor's story
against a texturally rich Victorian background--makes his book
all the more compelling.
This is, in short, a captivating book.
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