Book Reviews: a Season, a Month, an Event, a Person

Eric Anderson, MD, reviews four nonfiction works about America in 1927, the Watergate era, the sinking of the Lusitania, and Winston Churchill.

As a country doctor in the 1960s in Groveton, a small town in Texas, all I had time to read two years after med school graduation were emergency room booklets. But when I relocated in 1964 to New Hampshire I discovered crime fiction, somewhat satisfying to see — unlike reality – bad guys getting their deserts. California came in 1985, with a large group practice that embraced a new HMO service that brought educated patients with all the time in the world to give me both their symptoms and what was special about the nonfiction they were reading. The reading advice slowed down as the practice changed with the effect of age from the worried well to the fragile elderly. Now there was no time to ask what they were reading. So Fukuyama’s The End of History and Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes passed me by, the latter of which may be OK because now some say Angela’s was partly fiction.

But with my retirement came both more time and the thought that if time was not infinite and if I needed to increase the plasticity of my brain, I should look more carefully at what was out there in nonfiction and what was maybe worth the time to mention to healthcare colleagues with more busy active lives and less time to search for titles.

I found four titles fairly quickly — not that the reading was quick. (Most nonfictions are not books for trips on an airplane or a visit to a beach.)

The four historically interesting books were:

A book about a season

The summer of 1927

A book about a month

January 1973

A book about an event

The sinking of the Lusitania

A book about a person

Winston Churchill

One Summer: America, 1927

By Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors although — until two of my kids came back from a hiking tour in Britain – I’d never heard of him. An American from Iowa who married an English nurse he’d met as a student backpacking on his first trip to Europe – and a very amusing travel writer – he’d become hugely popular in the UK. My daughter told me it was hard to get in the door of major booksellers in Britain because his most recent books dominated special tables created at the entrances. In the USA he’d never been heard of until he brought his wife back to the States “to show here the benefits of 24 hour shopping.” He then walked the Appalachian Trail. He wrote A Walk In the Woods and was “discovered” by Americans.

It was a “forgotten summer when America came of age and changed the world for ever…a time when America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time),” but a time, too, when Charles Lindbergh ignored the rules of physics (and maybe even aviation) and flew to Paris. It was also a steroid-free time when the Babe and Lou Gehrig competed to hit an impossible number of home runs in one baseball season.

The year 1927 had a Mississippi flooding, Al Capone’s crimes, William Wellman’s movie Wings, Al Jolson’s first talking movie, the controversial Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney fight, Calvin Coolidge’s presidential snoozes, and weird events like “Shipwreck” Kelly’s success in achieving a new record in flagpole squatting — and less amusing – the murder trial of the corset salesman who garroted the husband of his Queens housewife lover. But buried in Bryson’s “telling eye for detail, and delicious humor” was information about Lindberg’s infidelity in Europe that had not been discovered or mentioned by A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lindbergh,

There’s a great New York Times review here.

January 1973 Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever

By James Robenalt

If the first book in this list of four had a tongue-in-cheek zing, this one by James Robenalt, a trial lawyer and lecture partner of John W. Dean, (“both sought-after speakers on the Watergate Scandal circuit”) reveals the duplicity in government and how self-serving and defensive our politicians were and can be. It might make average readers hope they are never in a position where they might be expected to shake hands with a politician. Furthermore in the Watergate discussion although the political names ring a bell, we who suffered under this egregious use of the US Presidency have tried to forget those names, although John W. Dean, who wrote the foreword for this book, does not mention there he was imprisoned for four months because of his role in Watergate. He may feel he is better known for his more positive role in pointing the finger and clarifying that Nixon was wrong and really had no defense.

I got a bit stuck within this book because although Robenalt is said to be a very precise and accurate lawyer he cannot match the Bryson charm that keeps readers turning pages.

The Kirkus Review is here.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson

After the almost numbing detail of the Watergate Conspiracy it was almost a relief to turn to the frightening story of how dishonor in war by both Britain and Germany sank the pride of the British maritime Empire, the four-funnel easily recognizable Lusitania, the fastest civilian liner in service in 1914. It’s an engrossing tale from the same author who told us in The Devil in the White City, to our dismay, about the physician pharmacist who murdered people in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World Fair. Although this latter book was described by the author as a novel nonfiction (whatever that means) the physician did exist. He was born in 1861 in Gilmanton, NH, the village that was the basis for the book and movie, Peyton Place. He was hanged in1896.

Dead Wake is the story of the event that two years later brought America into World War I. It is not unlike how in World War II the Allies had broken the German war communication codes but hesitated to act too many times on its knowledge in case it told the enemy the code had been broken.

My perception of dishonor by both combatants is based on the suspicion the author entertains that, first, Great Britain could have done a lot more to protect the Lusitania as it approached United Kingdom shores and, second, that Unterseeboot-20 captain Walther Schwieger had been primed and authorized by his government to attack and sink civilian liners approaching the shores of Germany’s enemy. It’s a fascinating and detailed story that clears up much of the previous erroneous and confusing information about this event. The sinking killed 1,197 persons, including 124 of the 159 Americans aboard.

Larson suggests that one of the reasons it took two years to drag America into the war was that Woodrow Wilson, recently widowed, was infatuated with and distracted from his duties by the lady he subsequently married. However, there is some evidence of carelessness — even incompetence – in the British Admiralty when Churchill delegated duties to a mentally disturbed First Sea lord so he, Churchill, could go briefly to the front in France for a clearer picture of what was happening there.

Incredibly, the sinking of the Lusitania was falsely blamed on its captain. The bodies washed up on the coast of Ireland in front of horrified Irish civilians who had seen the U-Boat attack. But, as locals, they knew there were better defended ways to approach Liverpool, the destination port. Like the rest of the world, they waited a long time to see reprisals. Ultimately, Wilson sent six destroyers that sailed past those same people heartening them that maybe the war would soon be over. It stimulated the Gribble painting.

Bernard Gribble’s painting The Return of the Mayflower was commissioned by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1919 and when he became president in 1933 it hung in the Oval Office. The original now hangs in the US Naval Academy with copies in several locations — this one shown here courtesy the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

There is a NPR review of Larson’s book here.

The Last Lion

By William Manchester

In Texas at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, I lost enthusiasm for reading Manchester’s The Death of a President when I learned that Jacqueline Kennedy, who had commissioned the book, later tried to block its publication until Manchester cut 1,600 words and seven of 654 pages and agreed to a new financial arrangement.

Winston Churchill died in 1965. His wife Clementine died in 1977, aged 92. But those who had known the family knew that Manchester would not face a similar censorship from Churchill’s family even though his book was published in 1988. The Churchills were more used to the integrity and honesty of “The [old] Last Lion” himself. They had no issues with truth.

The truth of this almost disastrous decade, when Churchill virtually alone realized the menace of Hitler and a Nazi Germany re-arming, was that this period in history saw the end of the British Empire — not a finale caused by dangerous enemies, but triggered from within by tentative, weak, and cowardly English politicians, many from old private schools. They were determined to appease Hitler, mostly because they sensed the public, horrified by war, would not support a stand suggesting appeasement would surely allow war. Churchill’s enemies – and he had many because he had been a voice in the wilderness for many years – felt that if they responded to his constant warning that Britain should arm itself, they would not be re-elected by the public.

It was a frightening and disgraceful period in England’s history when the London Times suppressed stories that might offend Hitler, when King Edward VIII who, thank God, abdicated the throne so he could marry his divorcee, was an open Nazi sympathizer and when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin himself concealed information of Royal Air Force inferiority so he could win re-election.

In this book subtitled Alone, Manchester declares that World War II was not Churchill’s finest hour. Indeed that came in 1932 to 1940 when this giant stood almost alone in the remnants of Great Britain to defy Nazi Germany. And his reward? Kicked out of politics in 1945 in favor of the “faceless intruder,” Labour politician Clement Attlee.

The caption for the photograph (bottom right) reads: “As France collapses and all seems lost, Winston Spencer Churchill becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain.”

The background of Manchester’s first book in this trilogy is covered here. A review of this book, the second, is here.

Photography by the author.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.