Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe by H.L. Mencken

The 2016 presidential election campaign has already begun, so let’s take a look at a book about elections of the past, shall we?  H.L. Mencken (1880-1948) was a newspaperman, most famously on the Baltimore, Maryland Sun.  For a number of years, he had a weekly opinion column published on Mondays.  These 69 essays are focused primarily on presidential politics between 1920 and 1936.

a Carnival of Buncombe

That covers Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and the first two elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Mr. Mencken skewers them all, as well as other politicians and public figures of the time.  He was famous for his barbs, and is eminently quotable.  For example “…going into politics is as fatal to a gentleman as going into a bordello is fatal to a virgin.”

It’s interesting to see what has changed about politics since the first half of the Twentieth Century, and what has remained the same.  It’s still amusing to watch a party’s primary candidates tear each other to shreds, then have to work together as best buddies once the party has an official nominee.  On the other hand, the Republican and Democratic parties of the time are barely recognizable as the organizations they are now.  (One can see the beginnings of the policy flips that lost the Dems the KKK vote.)

Mr. Mencken has a wide vocabulary and many useful words that may come in handy for your own writing.  But be warned that he also uses some ethnic slurs that were common at the time.  His views are progressive on some subjects, but highly reactionary on others, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  Mr. Mencken is particularly hard on Methodists and Baptists, who he feels bullied the country into Prohibition (which Mencken was against.)

H.L. Mencken did support some politicians on an individual basis, but was quick to edit his own memory of their performance when they disappointed him.  One also has to remember that he had a reputation as a curmudgeon to uphold.

To cover the major players, Warren G. Harding was a compromise candidate chosen for not having particularly strong views on anything; Calvin Coolidge was even less impressive (unless one takes the Jeffersonian dictum that “the government is best that governs least” in which case he is one of the greatest presidents.)  Herbert Hoover was sold to America as exactly the kind of person who could fix a financial crisis should one pop up–he wasn’t.  And FDR would have been better suited to the job of king.

Interesting historical perspective:  Mr. Mencken writes several times about the perception that Hoover was too close to the British, something that didn’t get any play in the little I heard about him in school.

This collection was put together in the 1950s with the aid of political history scholar Malcolm Moos; it already needed an extensive “glossary” of names mentioned in the columns to remind people of who they’d been.  Even with the glossary and index, some knowledge of early 20th Century American politics is vital to the reader getting anything but a few chuckles out of the text.  My copy is in bad shape, as you can see, but the book has been reprinted a few times, so check your library or used book store.

Recommended to students of American politics in the first half of the 20th Century.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition by Amity Shlaes & Paul Rivoche

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and some changes will occur in the final edition (due out around May 2014.)

The Forgotten Man

This is a “graphic novel” version of the revisionist history book by Amity Shlaes in which she argues that the New Deal policies tended to prolong the Great Depression.  For this version, the story is told through the narration of Wendell Willkie, an electric utility executive that ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

The black and white Rivoche art serves the subject well, although casting FDR’s face in shadow much of the time is an artistic choice that is perhaps a bit too obvious in its intentions.

The general notion is that government intervention in the economy was (and is) a bad thing, and that self-starting individuals such as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous could have brought the country out of its slump much earlier.  It also tries to link several of the important figures in the Roosevelt Administration to Communism, a frequent bugaboo of neoconservatives.

That said, there were many missteps in the great experiment of the New Deal, and several of them get a mention here.  Some of them don’t come across quite as the author intended, I think, looking more like the result of bad individual decisions than bad government policy.

There are some really good bits in here, such as the running gag of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon not talking.

The back has a (possibly misleading) timeline and economic chart, followed by a listing of the cast of characters.  The potted biographies carefully cut off as of 1940, which means that you will need to do your own research on such figures as Ayn Rand to see where they actually ended up.

As noted in the disclaimer, this is an uncorrected proof, and some dialogue balloons have missing words or badly constructed sentences, making them make little sense,  which will presumably be fixed in the finished product.

Fans of the original book should find this one interesting, as well as history buffs who enjoy graphic novels.  Those of you who are not familiar with economics may want to brush up a bit to more fully understand the positions being argued here.  In honesty, I’m recommending this one more for the art than the writing.

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis by Nicholas J. Willis

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Frances Elizabeth Williams

Frances Elizabeth Willis (1899-1983) was the first woman to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to become a Career Ambassador, serving as the United Stares ambassador to Switzerland, Norway and Ceylon.  (There had been other women who had served as ambassadors previously, but they had been political appointees.)  This biography traces her remarkable career.

The author (her nephew) starts with a rare anecdote Miss Willis (and it was Miss Willis until she became Madame Ambassador) shared with her family, asking them not to repeat it until everyone involved was dead.  And no wonder, as it contradicted official history and might have reflected unfavorably on another ambassador!  She never kept a diary, did not retain any official documents that were not about her directly, and by the time she thought about writing a memoir, Miss Willis’ memory was beginning to fail for medical reasons.

So it is that there are some unfortunate gaps in this biography–but I have certainly seen biographies with worse gaps.    The author was able to get access to declassified documents, including her service dossier, and the latter has much of the interest in this book.  It seems that during her career, Frances Willis never requested to see what was in her dossier, and as a result, was unaware of just how deep the gender bias against her was.

The subtitle of the biography is “Up the Foreign Service ladder to the summit–despite the limitations of her sex, a repeated phrase in the dossier.  The old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half the respect certainly seems true here.  The “old guard” did not think consular work and diplomacy were fit work for women, and did everything they could behind the scenes to discourage them.

But Miss Willis was an extraordinary person, and went above and beyond to prove her worth to the Foreign Service.  Promotions might have come long after they should have, but she kept plugging away, and those co-workers who knew her personally boosted her career.

This book offers some interesting insights into the world of the Foreign Service, and how it changed during Miss Willis’ long career.  Sadly, some of the most interesting-sounding bits remain classified, so we will probably never know much about the espionage side of her job.

There are photos throughout the text, rather than crammed into the middle like many other biographies.    There’s an appendix explaining the history, bureaucratic structure and nomenclature of the Foreign Service, which is helpful to decipher some of the more arcane moments, as well as an index.

The author is perhaps a little too fond of reminding the reader that he was in the Navy, and there are some spellchecker-passed typos (“compliment ” and “complement” get mixed up a couple of times.)  It’s not bad for a self-published book, but could have used another editorial pass.

This book will be of interest to those who want a look at the workings of American diplomacy, and those who want to read about successful women (note that Frances Williams was careful to distance herself from the feminist movement as such; that could have been the kiss of death in the early days.)

Due to the self-publishing, it may not be stocked in your local library, so consider buying a copy.

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