Table of Contents

Archived Short Takes

 October 1999  Short Takes

A. Scott Berg
Berkley Books
628 pp.


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.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes

The Invention
of the Human
Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books
745 pp.


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 merits?

Ah, youth.

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 it."

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, at least--uplifting.

--Charlie Onion

Back to Archived Short Takes

Rainbow Six
Tom Clancy
897 pp.


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 it seems.

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.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes

Capitol Venture
Barbara Mikulski
and Marylouise Oates

375 pp.


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.

--Daphne Frostchild

Back to Archived Short Takes

Esquire's Things
A Man Should Know About Style
Scott Omelianuk
and Ted Allen

152 pp.


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 advice.

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

Back to Archived Short Takes

The Professor
and the Madman:
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Simon Winchester
242 pp.


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 War II.)

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 be known."

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.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes Click here to find any title!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Archived Short Takes

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999
riverrun enterprises, inc.