Friday, October 29, 2010

The Fort by Bernard Cornwell

How do you write 450 pages about a battle that didn't happen?

It isn't easy, but somehow Bernard Cornwell, NYT bestselling author of Agincourt, managed to make it fairly interesting. It's not exactly that the battle at Penobscot didn't happen; it's that, after much planning and the first assault by the American Rebel forces against British Fort George, bickering and lack of cooperation among the militia, the Navy and the Marines -- and a frustratingly haughty and prickly, Paul Revere--caused them not to follow through and destroy the fort while it was still vulnerable. 

I can't say I was hooked on this book from the beginning. There were too many characters introduced too quickly, and, outside of Peleg Wadsworth, none of them were treated with enough depth for me to really care. Cornwell ends with the destruction of the fleet, apparently considered the worst American naval disaster prior to Pearl Harbor. As a history, that's the proper ending point, but as a novel it felt as though it ended in midstream. Characters like John Fletcher and his sister Beth are introduced with great promise, but their stories go nowhere. 

Cornwell's battle scenes are well-done and riveting. Indeed, that's when my interest first piqued, after which point I decided to stick with it. Some historical novels focus on the individual acting within the event, and some focus on the event itself. The Fort leans toward the latter, which was interesting for me, but not beyond three stars.

This book was provided free of charge under the Amazon Vine program, in return for posting a review at

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gilded: How Newport Became America's Richest Resort by Deborah Davis

This book was provided free of charge under the Amazon Vine program which provides free books in return for a review posted on

As someone who has read and re-read the novels of Edith Wharton and has done some research on the Gilded Age in the East as it contrasted to what was going on in many of the western states and territories at the time, I jumped at the chance to read and review Deborah Davis's Gilded. I wasn't disappointed. 

Davis takes us from Newport's colonial beginnings through the Gilded Age, the creation of the Newport Jazz Festival, and up to the present, ending with the death of society doyenne Eileen Slocum in 2008. I'm usually not much on "light" histories, but how else would you present the history of a resort where pedigree and income counted more than accomplishments. Even so, Davis deserves credit for a lengthy bibliography that reflects prodigious research when she could have easily gotten by with a gossipy tell-all instead.

Personally, my interest began to wane after the Kennedys, but that had nothing to do with the author's presentation that, I felt, struck just the right tone between awe-struck and deprecating. It is simply that the late 60s and early 70s is the time I grew into social awareness, and while I remember many names from that period, none, save for Patty Hearst, had much of a connection to the monied classes. Minnie Cushing and her "oh-so-sixties" beach wedding may have been a trendsetter in her own circle, but comes off more like a follower for those of us who lived through the era. And by the time Davis got to the IYRS 2008 fundraiser that raised over $600,000 for an association that restored classic yachts in a year when food pantries and other nonprofits that served the poor went begging, I felt I had eaten one too many courses of a sumptuously rich dinner.

Still this is an eminently readable history with short chapters and fascinating vignettes. I also appreciated the author's reminders, now and again, of who was related to which socialite who had thrown what lavish party back in the early chapters, as so many names were bandied about I would otherwise have lost track . 

All in all I highly recommend this book both for those interested in history, like me, or for those simply interested in a peek behind the iron gates at the lives of the rich and famous.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

If you wonder why the sixties are characterized as such a volatile decade consider that 2009 marked the 40th anniversaries of such disparate events as the first moon landing, Woodstock, the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz––and another one that went less noticed by me since my kid is grown––the debut of Sesame Street. To mark that last one, Michael Davis's Street Gang gives us the entire history of the much-acclaimed children's program from its beginnings in 1965 as a dinner party discussion between Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd N. Morrisett through Elmo's surpassing of Big Bird as the show's biggest star.

This is not the kind of reading I normally purchase for myself, but as a Christmas present from a gal who was raised on the Street, as it were––my daughter––I found it quite enjoyable, kind of like reading People while getting my hair colored. As you can imagine, if all behind the scenes were as copacetic as on the set (Oscar the Grouch notwithstanding), it wouldn't make for a very interesting read. So Davis includes the disputes and envy, false starts and government intrusion, and the impossible to ignore tragic life and death of Northern Calloway (David). Thankfully, the author has the grace not to go into detail on things like the Hensons' divorce or other possible "juicy" but irrelevant tidbits.

Those of us who know the show only from the years spent watching with our children (which for me included the marriage of Luis and Maria and Gabby's birth) will enjoy the history of early children's programming, particularly Captain Kangaroo, the show that nurtured much of Sesame's seminal staff, much to Bob Keeshan's chagrin as he watched them all jump ship. It will also bring you back to an earlier time when the education of inner-city kids with programs like Head Start was a national priority. Indeed, Sesame Street that eventually became the program of choice for so many suburban moms like myself, was originally meant to serve as a sort of on-air Head Start program. Changes in national priorities in the mid-ninties were reflected in the temporary addition of "Around the Corner" "...a new array of spaces that seemed less like Harlem and more like any gentrified up-and-coming neighborhood in America." (p.321)

The thoroughness of this history is both its plus and minus. While Davis attempts to cover everyone who worked a puppet or wrote a word or a note of music for the show, there are far too many people to keep track of, and most of us reading are interested mainly in the big behind-the-scenes names like Jim Hensen and Carroll Spinney, or those actors who played the humans. Also, he insists on telling the entire life story––literally from birth––of every participant. After a while that got a little old.

Overall the book was a pleasant surprise and one I'm glad I had the chance to read.