Book Review Thursday: 1924: The Year That Made Hitler

In a sane world it would seem a serious mistake to draw attention to and republish Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler’s autobiography first published in 1925.  For years the book was purposely kept off the shelves of bookstores and libraries, thought to have been too dangerous for the general public.  The copyright, held by the state of Bavaria, finally expired in December 2015. In late February 2016 the Washington Post reported the newly republished book, now heavily annotated to explain Hitler’s comments, was ranked number two on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list.  It seems fortuitous that this book by Peter Ross Range was released in late January 2016, perhaps serving as a counterbalance. Heaven knows the voluminous tomes which could be (and have been) written about Adolph Hitler.  Range chose to focus on a brief period in Hitler’s life to give us a glimpse into the mindset of the monster who later perpetrated so many horrific crimes against humanity. Hitler spent most of 1924 in prison after being tried for treason as a result of his attempted beer hall coup in early November 1923.  The “prison” was hardly what one would imagine for a prisoner accused of such crimes.  Instead, his private quarters and the year he spent there made it seem more like an extended spa vacation.  After being sentenced to five years in prison for his failed coup attempt, the judge immediately reduced the sentence to approximately six months (if he behaved himself). Hitler, surrounded with like-minded prisoners, enthralled the captive audience with his speechifying in the weeks before the trial.  However, following the trial he set himself to...

Book Review Thursday: Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

After reading this book I have to wonder how I, having lived almost two decades in Southern California, never heard about this tragic man-made disaster which occurred on March 12, 1928.  I vaguely knew about someone named Mulholland who made a name for himself in Los Angeles and had one of the most scenic drives in Los Angeles named in his honor.  It’s almost like the City and County of Los Angeles swept it all into the dustbin of history, that is until author Jon Wilkman wrote this detailed account which was voted one of the best books of January 2016 by Amazon. Although I’ve never seen the movie, fans of the 1974 movie Chinatown would have an idea of the background of the story.  The water wars of the early twentieth century which pitted the burgeoning city and county of Los Angeles against the farmers and ranchers of Owens Valley were marked by rancorous disputes and what we would today call acts of domestic terrorism. Los Angeles had big plans to expand and grow and Owens Valley had abundant water resources.  William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant, had been involved in Los Angeles water matters since his arrival there in 1877, eventually becoming chief engineer and manager of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply.   Mulholland, a self-educated civil engineer and dam builder was well-respected, yet made some fatal mistakes when he oversaw the building of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon in the mountains north of Los Angeles. The story of the dam breaking and creating a harrowing floodpath to the Pacific Ocean...

Book Review Thursday: The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt

After reading several books in the last two years about the Roosevelts – Franklin, Eleanor, Alice and Theodore – I believe this one is perhaps the most poignant one of all as it explores the relationship between Theodore and his youngest son Quentin.  He adored his children, and they adored him right back (with the exception, of course, of his first child Alice with whom he had a sometimes-strained relationship). This book by Eric Burns focuses on Theodore’s special relationship with Quentin, or Quenty-Quee as he liked to call his youngest son. Perhaps more than any other of his children, Quentin was most like his father.  They shared on particular thing in common – both suffered from one childhood malady or another – so much so that it pained Theodore to see his offspring suffer, especially “golden lad” Quentin who would be the frailest of all his children. Quentin was the one who “got away” with more than the older children.  When the Roosevelts occupied the White House, Quentin and his friends were known as the “White House Gang”, running up and down the halls, playing pranks, making mischief.  His spirit and joie de vivre were so much like his father’s it’s no wonder the two had such a special relationship. Many books have been written about Theodore Roosevelt, he being one of the most fascinating and colorful people to occupy the White House.  I expected this one to focus more on Quentin, given the title of the book.  Burns, however, spent a fair amount of time writing about Theodore while interspersing stories which highlighted their special relationship. Theodore...

Book Review Thursday: Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese Family Caught Between Two Worlds

This meticulously researched book by Pamela Rotner Sakomoto is a compelling story of a Japanese-American family finding themselves on opposite sides during World War II.   The book opens with scenes from one of America’s darkest days, December 7, 1941, following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Harry Fukuhara, twenty-one years old and living in Los Angeles, finds it hard to comprehend the news.  Meanwhile his seventeen year-old brother, thousands of miles away in Japan, had just boarded a train for a school track meet when he heard someone speak of “our victorious assault on Hawaii”.  Little did these two brothers realize they would eventually serve on opposite sides. Katsuji and Kinu Fukuhara, Japanese immigrants to America (he in 1900 and she in 1911 after marrying Katsuji sight-unseen – a picture bride), had five children – four sons and one daughter.  The oldest two children, Victor and Mary, were sent back to Japan at an early age to avoid discrimination and, ostensibly, to immerse them in the Japanese culture.  They both returned in 1929.   However, their three younger children – Harry, Pierce and Frank – were all born and raised in the Pacific Northwest where Katsuji worked hard to provide for his family, despite often being shunned because of his ethnicity. The Depression years were difficult and when Katsuji died Kinu decided to return to Japan, taking all her children back to her ancestral home of Hiroshima.  Harry, however, vowed from the start to someday return to America – he was, after all, an American by birth and proudly so. First Mary and then Harry returned to America, determined to...

Book Review Thursday: Brave Companions

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough is known for his meticulously researched historical and biographical works.  In Brave Companions McCullough combines essays originally written for magazine publication into a compelling book of short biographies.  Two of the essays were written as a result of research for two books: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 and Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Theodore Roosevelt, as well-known American historical figures, were profiled along with lesser-known or long-forgotten individuals such as Alexander von Humboldt.  Although born into an aristocratic Prussian family in Berlin, he decided to forego a life of privilege and chose instead to embark on an extended exploration of Latin America.  Charles Darwin would later utilize Humboldt’s extensive research and documentation.  In his best-selling book, Personal Narrative ITALICS, Humboldt described the need for a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Of course, that indeed became a reality many years later with the Panama Canal. In a way this book is a window into the thought processes of McCullough and his storied writing career.  McCullough would often find subjects for his books while researching another subject (that happens to me all the time!).  For instance, he pointed out that while researching The Great Bridge, the story of the German immigrant Roebling family and their stunning achievements in building the Brooklyn Bridge, he studied Henry Ward Beecher to understand the times surrounding the bridge’s construction.  Beecher was a renowned Congregationalist minister and social reformer, the brother...

Book Review Thursday: Johnstown Flood

As this book’s description notes, it is much more than just a story about one of America’s greatest weather-related tragedies, the Johnstown Flood of 1889  – it’s also a social history, set in the nineteenth century’s so-called “Gilded Age”. Nearing the end of the nineteenth and looking head to the twentieth century, America was flexing its muscle as an industrial power house.  Titans of industry made millions on the backs of hardworking men in the coal and steel industry and Johnstown was a leading boom town in southwest Pennsylvania. David McCullough dedicates the entire second chapter of the book to setting the stage for the tragedy by introducing readers to some of those titans of industry, notable among them the likes of two men named Andrew (Carnegie and Mellon).  Along with other successful businessmen, they helped organize an exclusive members-only summer resort in the mountains above Johnstown in 1879 – the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.  The lake had been called many things, including Lake Conemaugh, but residents of Johnstown referred to it as the South Fork dam. For years members had been warned of the dam’s instability, and each time residents of the valley would be assured the dam was perfectly safe.  That would prove to be tragically false on May 31, 1889 when a massive weather system hovered in the area for several hours, dumping massive amounts of rain which caused the dam to burst and flood the valley below. The wall of water roared through community after community, destroying practically everything in its path and causing the deaths of over two thousand people.  When news...