Archive for the ‘Bud’s Picks’ Category

Bud here with a few mini reviews of some good non-fiction books.

Helter SkelterHelter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry

The fascinating story of Charlie Manson, his fanatically loyal hippie followers and the savage Tate-LaBianca murders is engrossingly recounted by the author Vince Bugliosi, who was directly involved as a prosecuting attorney in the case. Forty-one years after its original publication, it deservedly remains one of the best, and most popular, True Crime books of all time.

Sample sentence: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes down the canyon.”

Check the WRL catalog for Helter Skelter


The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, by Daniel James BrownIndifferent Stars Above

The story of the tragic Donner party expedition in 1846 is vividly recounted in this fine history book. Told primarily through the experience of one young woman, the narrative is grim and occasionally heartrending but also educational. You learn a lot about what everyday life was like for pioneers on the overland trail and, in particular, about the astonishing ability of people to endure great suffering and survive. A tragic tale eloquently and engrossingly re-told.

Sample sentence: “When she first looked into the survivors’ eyes, Eliza Gregson was startled by what she saw looking back at her, and she later marveled at it. ‘I shall never forget the looks of those people, for the most part of them was crazy and their eyes danced and sparkled in their heads like stars.’”

Check the WRL catalog for The Indifferent Stars Above


Empire of the Summer MoonEmpire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne

The lifestyle, battles with white settlers, and eventual decline of the Comanche Indians in late 19th century Southwest America are detailed in this extensively researched and elegiac history. In particular the lives of white Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, last war Chief of the Comanche are poignantly recounted.   A remarkable story graphically brought to life by a skilled writer. A good choice for anyone who thinks history is boring.

Sample Line: “What was she (Cynthia Ann) in the end? A white woman by birth, yes, but also a relic of old Comancheria, of the fading empire of high grass and fat summer moons and buffalo herds that blackened the horizon.”

Check the WRL catalog for Empire of the Summer Moon

Or try Empire of the Summer Moon as an audiobook on CD

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Grumpy CatFor the few people who haven’t yet heard of Grumpy Cat, let me enlighten you. Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tardar Sauce, is a small cat of indeterminate breed who became an internet sensation in 2012 because of her particular puss. The kitty’s mouth turns down, her eyes are large and the markings on her fur make her appear to be perpetually frowning. Not scary frowning, mind you, but endearingly funny frowning. From this facial peculiarity, the Grumpy Cat was born and launched a thousand memes, two books and a holiday movie.

The two books, Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book and The Grumpy Guide to Life, are novelty tomes that feature pictures and commentary by the grouchy grimalkin. The comments are all amusingly sour observations such as:

Next time you’re feeling pretty good about how things are going in your life, remember that the dinosaurs were probably feeling that way, too, before that meteor fell.


Don’t Forget: Every silver lining is part of a larger, darker cloud.

Of more interest are the plentiful photographs of the telegenic tabby, with my particular favorite being “The Frown File,” featuring several classic crabby snapshots with advice that “If you master each of the following looks, you can effectively ruin anyone’s day.” Indeed, a laudable goal to aspire to.

In the Lifetime TV movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, we get to see the frowning feline in action as the disgruntled denizen of a mall pet shop. Grumpy spouts a non-stop stream of snappy snark as she begrudgingly helps a lonely teenager foil a robbery and rescue a kidnapped dog. This self-mocking film will never win an Oscar, but it is good cheesy fun and something the whole family can watch. Hey, Lifetime, how about a follow-up film, maybe, Grumpy Cat vs. The Turkey: A Tale of Thanksgiving Grousing, or Heartburn: A Grumpy Cat Valentine’s Day, or The Case of The Sourpuss: a Grumpy Cat Mystery.

The library’s entire Grumpy Cat oeuvre is recommended for people of all ages who have a sense of humor and low expectations.

Check the WRL catalog for Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Grumpy Guide to Life

Check the WRL catalog for Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

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These intriguing disaster films are reviewed by Bud:Mayday_Air_Land_and_Sea_Disasters0506

Aviation disasters have been much in the news this past year with the most prominent stories being the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 over the Gulf of Thailand and the loss of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine. The media made much of these tragic events and the public avidly followed the articles because, despite their grievous nature, stories of airplane accidents are inherently gripping. Air disasters occur rarely but when they do the destruction is usually so large scale and dreadful that our attention is just drawn to them.

The non-fiction DVD series, Mayday! Air Disasters shows just how riveting these occurrences can be. This documentary program, which also aired under the title, Air Emergency, profiles twenty-nine different disasters, most, but not all, aviation accidents. Some of the events covered are:

Unlocking Disaster During United Flight 811 from Honolulu to New Zealand, the door to the cargo hold spontaneously opened tearing off a piece of the fuselage in the process and sucking several passengers out of the plane. The parents of one of the lost passengers worked tirelessly to identify the cause of the accident and hold the aviation industry responsible.

Hanging By A Thread Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was flying 24,000 feet over the Hawaiian Islands when suddenly thirty-five feet of the plane’s upper fuselage peeled off, completely exposing the first five rows of passengers to the open sky. Can a passenger jet remain airborne with this much damage?

Out of Control Twelve minutes into a flight from Tokyo to Osaka Japan, JAL Flight 123 mysteriously malfunctions and for over thirty agonizing minutes plunges up and down as the anguished crew fight to regain control of the plane.

Fight For Your Life A suicidal company employee hitches a ride on FedEx Flight 705. Mid-flight he attacks the crew with hammers and a spear gun. The badly injured pilot looks for a place to land while his co-pilot, also seriously wounded, engages in desperate fisticuffs with their crazed passenger.

Falling From the Sky While flying from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, British Airlines Flight 009 begins experiencing very unusual phenomena. A strange haze drifts into the passenger compartment. A “brilliant, white shimmering light” appears to be clinging to the plane and 20-foot long flames start shooting from the engines which then proceed to shut down one by one.

Ghost Plane En route over Greece, tourist flight Helios 522 with 100 passengers on board cannot be contacted by anyone on the ground. Army jets sent to check on it find something very strange. The plane is flying normally but no one on board is moving. The plane’s occupants all appear to be unconscious or dead. What is going on?

These are just a few of the many intriguing stories covered in a series that totals 12 discs. The first part of each episode uses film footage of the actual incidents, interviews with the people involved and recreations to show what happened. The second part explains why it happened. The accident investigation process is fascinating as scientists and aviation experts try to determine exactly what went wrong.

You learn a lot about avionics, the airline industry and human behavior under extreme conditions. You also pick up some memorable, if occasionally creepy, factoids. Did you know that if you are unfortunate enough to somehow exit an airplane at 23,000 feet it will take you approximately four minutes to hit the ground?

This show proved to be compulsively watchable. It’s the best kind of reality TV because it’s both educational and entertaining and despite the potential for being lurid, is not exploitative or overtly gory. However, if you have a fear of flying, you may find it disquieting.

I’d recommend it for anyone with an interest in aviation, science or human drama.

Check the WRL catalog for Mayday! Air, Land and Sea Disasters and Mayday!:Air Disasters

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fetchOn March 30, 1938, two women left their hotel in El Paso, Texas and drove out of town towards Dallas. Hazel Frome and her beautiful 23-year-old daughter Nancy were wealthy socialites from Berkeley, California on a road trip east to visit relatives. The following afternoon, their brand new Packard automobile was found abandoned by the side of the road.

Three days later, the women themselves were located. They were face down in a sandy culvert 60 miles from where their car had been found. They’d been shot in the back of the head execution style, and both showed signs of torture. The investigation into this unusual murder case is detailed in a terrific new True Crime book, Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America by Clint Richmond.

Leading the criminal investigation was Chris Fox, the Sheriff of El Paso County. Sheriff Fox was confronted with a puzzling case rife with anomalies. The prevailing theory of a simple robbery gone bad, didn’t mesh with the fact that the women had been held and tortured for two days and expensive diamond jewelry was left behind on the bodies.

It was also strange that Hazel’s husband Weston Frome, upon being notified about the abandoned car, insisted that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped and murdered before there was any evidence that such a crime had occurred. He only reluctantly cooperated with the police during the investigation.

But perhaps the strangest facet of the case involved the ammunition used in the murders. In the middle of America’s Chihuahuan Desert, two society women had been killed with a specialized type of bullet made only in Germany for the specific use of high ranking members of the Nazi party.

Beset by contradictory witness accounts, jurisdictional in-fighting among the various investigative agencies, and stonewalling superiors in the government, Sheriff Fox pressed on, and the book becomes a real page-turner as he collects evidence and sorts through leads that hint at the involvement of some European career criminals and a cabal of international spies.

The author, Clint Richmond, does a fine job in relating this interesting bit of criminal history in a book that is clearly written, fast-paced and crowded with colorful characters. I would recommend it for anyone interested in True Crime or tales of espionage.

Check the WRL catalog for Fetch the Devil


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SkeletonAn unmarried woman with a teenage daughter lands a job at the local community college and moves back into her childhood home. Her parents are on an extended sabbatical, so the woman, Georgia Thackery, and daughter Madison are alone in the house… except for Sid the skeleton. Sid is an actual skeleton who just happens to be alive. He walks, talks and has a fondness for corny jokes and bone-related expletives such as, “Oh, coccyx.” This is the unusual premise of Leigh Perry’s new cozy mystery novel, the first in a proposed series.

Sid has been Georgia’s friend for about 30 years, ever since he followed her home from a carnival where he’d been a featured attraction in the haunted house ride. Her miraculously tolerant family let Sid stay and kept him a secret from the outside world for all that time. Madison knows nothing about Sid, and he wants to keep it that way for reasons that he won’t explain. Things go along swimmingly for the weird trio until Sid spots a familiar face that he can’t quite identify at a Manga convention. Yes, the skeleton does go outside, either in disguise or disarticulated in a suitcase. The sighting spurs Georgia and Sid to investigate his life as a human and they soon discover that he was murdered and that the killer is still alive and willing to kill again.

OK, the premise is so dopey it shouldn’t work, but it actually does. Sid and Georgia are both likeable, and the mystery is decently plotted with a plausible series of clues leading to the denouement. There are even a few smartly placed red herrings to keep you guessing along the way. No explanation is given for how this living skeleton came to be but, so what, just go with it and enjoy the ride. The humor is gentle with no offensive language, sex, or gore, so it’s a mystery that can be enjoyed by all ages. I particularly liked the pet dog who keeps trying to make a snack out of Sid’s leg bone. The book would be a nice choice for a Halloween film on the Hallmark Channel.

I call novels of this kind “airplane books” because they are good for long flights. They don’t require a lot of concentration, but the stories are diverting enough to distract you from the screaming toddler four rows back. The author, Leigh Perry (a pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner, an award-winning mystery author), has written a lightweight but engaging yarn and I look forward to the next book in the series.

Check the WRL catalog for A Skeleton in the Family.

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1219On Labor Day in the year 1921, at a bootleg booze-infused party in San Francisco, movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle followed a woman named Virginia Rappe into the bedroom of room 1219 at the St. Francis Hotel and locked the door behind them. Four days later Rappe died in agony, Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter and the motion picture industry was engulfed in a major scandal. In the nonfiction book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt delves into this tawdry tale and tries to determine exactly what took place behind that locked door.

Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a rupture in the bladder, but what caused the rupture? Some of the party-goers blamed Arbuckle, but he repeatedly asserted that he had done nothing wrong. The prosecution was hampered by a lack of hard evidence and the witnesses were shady to say the least, so it took three fractious trials, two of which resulted in hung juries, before a verdict was reached.

The jury had spoken but the press and public had already made their determination. The tabloid nature of the crime led to overwhelming and appallingly sleazy publicity. All involved were irrevocably slandered. The movie industry was threatened with boycotts and censorship laws. To salvage their business, the studios tried to appease the public by hiring a censorship czar named Will Hays whose job it was to ensure the “moral purity” of Hollywood films. To show they meant business, Arbuckle was sacrificed. His films were pulled from theaters and he was forbidden to work on screen ever again. He spent the final years of his short life trying to regain his lost stardom.

This is an interesting bit of Hollywood history, and author Greg Merritt has done a nice job in bringing it to life in a book that is abundantly researched and decidedly fair and unbiased to everyone involved in the case. Beyond the incident itself and its aftermath, he also gives us detailed bios of Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe and many of the other players in the saga, along with some interesting sidelights on the history of the film industry. As to what really happened in room 1219, Merritt speculates and it sounds plausible, but there are only two people who know for sure and they are long gone. I’d recommend this for people interested in the history of cinema or true crime.

Check the WRL catalog for Room 1219

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Bud has found another gem hidden in the stacks:

higherOne of the best things about working at a library is being able to wander through the stacks and find, through sheer serendipity, wonderful books that you’ve never heard of before. Higher by Neal Bascomb is an example of this. I noticed it, hidden away in the architecture section, while re-shelving and was intrigued enough by the description to start reading. It hooked me from the start.

This non-fiction book tells the story of how three of New York City’s most famous landmarks, the Chrysler Building, The Manhattan Company Building and the Empire State Building, came to be built. It’s a fascinating tale.

In the early 1920s, architect William Van Alen was asked by automobile magnate Walter Chrysler to design a skyscraper that was unique, beautiful and tall… taller than any other building in the world.  Van Alen, an example of the architect as artist, was delighted, and with a virtual blank check began the design and construction on what would eventually become that art deco jewel, the Chrysler Building.

Meanwhile, across town lived another architect named Craig Severance. Severance was far more interested in the financial rewards of the construction business than its artistic aspects.  He and Van Alen had formerly been partners in a successful architecture firm but had parted acrimoniously leaving them bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Severance was not about to let Van Alen get credit for the world’s tallest skyscraper so he gathered funding from friends and investors and started work on the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street.

As the book goes on and the buildings go up we learn a lot about how the construction industry operated in the 1920s. How funding was pulled together through financial wheeling and dealing and the covert finagling involved in buying property.  The construction trade was complicated and detail-oriented. Hiring work crews, the demolition of the property’s pre-existing building, the logistical problems of making sure that materials are at the right place at the right time, and the actual process of constructing a skyscraper floor by floor are all clearly explained.  

You might think this kind of technical information would be boring but it’s not. The work was by its very nature costly, difficult, dangerous and exciting all at once, especially at the rapid pace the projects mandated.  Remarkably, construction on both buildings was completed in less than two years despite the additional complications brought on by all the secretive architectural adjustments and machinations that Val Alen and Severance went through in order to insure that THEIR building was the tallest.

Unfortunately for the both of them these efforts were all for naught because while they were focused on each other, a group representing General Motors also entered the race and with its completion in 1931, the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper.

I found this book to be colorful, fast-paced and well written. It makes you look at something you’ve always taken for granted, an office building that’s been standing there for 80 years, with a new eye and appreciate what a wonder it is and just how much effort went into creating it.  I was also struck by the pride and optimistic, “can-do” spirit that was such a big part of America at that time.  Bascher concludes the book with this paragraph:

 All the exuberance, daring, romance, moxie, innovation and pride that infused the decade is seen in these pinnacles. No misfortune or turn of events could take that away. Even if these skyscrapers were ‘torn down, as others have been before them, ‘ Chrysler said at the time of the race, ‘the spirit of the men working together that they represent will build new ones.’ It was this spirit-not steel and stone- that carried these skyscrapers higher.”

I recommend Higher for anyone interested in New York City, architecture or history.

Check the WRL catalog for Higher

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Former PeopleThrough the stories of two aristocratic families, the Shermetevs and the Golitsyns, author Douglas Smith details what happened to the once mighty Russian nobility when the Communists came into power in the early 20th century.

The pattern was depressingly consistent, dispossession followed by displacement and often death. First, their wealth and property were taken from them. Secondly, those who didn’t leave Russia willingly were exiled to remote areas of the empire. Relentlessly exploited as symbols of decadence and oppression by their government, nobles were classified as “Former People” and never allowed to fully integrate into regular Soviet society. Eventually, many of them ended up dying in prisons or gulags.

You can’t really call this sad, non-fiction book upbeat, but it is well-researched and a timely reminder about the depredations of communism and the danger of all-powerful governments.

Check the WRL catalog for Former People.

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7GablesIn old New England, scheming Judge Pyncheon craves a piece of land owned by poor farmer Matthew Maule. When Maule refuses to sell, he is suddenly accused of being a witch and condemned to die. On the scaffold he curses his persecutor, Judge Pyncheon. “‘God,’ said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, ‘God will give him blood to drink!’” So begins the story of the Pyncheon clan and the curse that blights them down through the generations as they live in their house with seven gables built on land wrongly and ruthlessly appropriated from an innocent man.

First published in 1851, Hawthorne’s novella may be off-putting for modern readers with its lack of action and obvious symbolism, but stick with it. The story is intriguing and eventually you come to care about the characters, especially lonely old spinster Hepzibah. As befits a gothic novel, it’s very much a mood piece with the oppressive decay of the house and its dark history overshadowing everything. Hawthorne’s Victorian writing style is also quite interesting because the dense, highly literate prose, emphasizing psychological insight, is so different from modern popular fiction, which focuses on fast-paced plotting and snappy dialogue. The House of Seven Gables will not appeal to everyone, but if you’re tired of low-brow pop culture and looking for a classic good read, give it a try.

Check the WRL catalog for The House of Seven Gables

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LIONSIn 1898, the British began construction on a railway line in East Africa that was to run from the port of Mombasa up to Lake Victoria. Nicknamed the “Lunatic Line” by critics, this huge and difficult project became even more so when:

“Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks.”

John Henry Patterson was the engineer in charge of construction, so, by default, it became his responsibility to put an end to the depredations. The book relates his efforts to do just that and despite his understated prose, it’s a nail-biting read. These lions were smart, fearless and vicious. It’s not known exactly how many people they devoured, but Patterson affirmed 28 railway workers and they are traditionally credited with 130 kills before finally being stopped.

First published in 1907, this non-fiction thriller is rightly considered a classic of Africana and hunting literature and is recommended for people who like true tales of adventure and don’t mind a little gore… OK, maybe more than just a little gore.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man-eaters of Tsavo.

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Stone of Heaven“Bud” closes out Lost in the Stacks Week with this treasure of a post:

One of the rarest, most valuable gemstones in the world is Jadeite. Smooth to the touch with a lovely luster, it’s sturdy and capable of being carved into shapes and objects. Green is the best known color but it also comes in shades of lavender, yellow, white and black. Being a favored gemstone in China for 3000 years, a wealth of superstition and folklore has developed around it. The best jadeite, “Imperial Jade” has long been coveted by Chinese royalty. The fascinating history of Imperial Green Jade is nicely recounted in the non-fiction book, The Stone of Heaven by Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott.

Levy and Scott, who are both investigative journalists, combed through ancient texts in archives throughout Asia to uncover many wondrous tales of jade and the people who loved it including:

Emperor Qianlong – This powerful 18th century Chinese emperor engaged in a bloody and financially crippling war with the country of Mien-Tien in order to exact tribute from them, and the tribute he specifically wanted was Imperial Green Jade.

Griffith and Bayfield – At the instigation of the British East India Company, two men, Dr. William Griffith, “a ‘hardy and active’ scientist with a passion for exotic tea bushes” and Dr. George Bayfield a British Diplomat, endure a harrowing jungle trek in search of the legendary serpentine jadeite mines. These mines were rumored to be located somewhere in the Kachin Hills region of Burma, in the “Valley of Death” beneath the shadow of the “Great Golden Mountain.”

Empress Cixi – A young court concubine, Lady Yehenara, through luck, pluck and sheer ruthlessness becomes the dowager empress of China. She was also a rabid collector of Jade:

“Cixi’s satin robes were now Imperial yellow and her head-dress bore ‘a beautiful phoenix in the centre made of purest jade’ … Her shoulders were covered by a ‘transparent cape of 3500 pearls the size of canary bird eggs’, fringed by 40 jadeite drops and held at the throat by jadeite clasps, that a lady–in-waiting would later describe as ‘the most magnificent and costly thing I ever saw.’  Cixi wore six Imperial Green Jade Bangles carved into candy twists, triple-hoop jadeite ear-rings and a 108-bead court necklace made from Qianlong’s stone of heaven.”

These are just a few examples of the many colorful stories to be found in the book, which is compulsively readable.  In the last section, the authors furtively slip into Burma (present day Myanmar) to investigate working conditions at the jade mines in the 1990s. What they find is horrific, with brutal working conditions and exploited people.  Well researched and written, The Stone of Heaven is a fascinating exploration of a renowned gemstone and its role in history.

Check the WRL catalog for The Stone of Heaven: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade

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Little Gloria Happy at LastHere’s post number four for our “Lost in the Stacks” week from Bud:

The millennial generation knows Anderson Cooper as a CNN news anchor. Their baby boomer parents know that Cooper’s mother is Gloria Vanderbilt and that she was a famous fashion designer in the 1970s.  But the parents of the baby boomers knew Gloria before she was the queen of designer jeans. This older generation will remember her as little Gloria, the poor-little- rich-girl pawn in a scandalous celebrity custody trial, a trial that is scrupulously detailed in the entertaining, true-life social history, Little Gloria…Happy at Last, by Barbara Goldsmith.

Little Gloria’s father was Reginald Vanderbilt, an alcoholic, playboy wastrel,  and her mother was the beautiful “Glorious” Gloria Morgan. Gloria and her twin sister Thelma, who was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, were known in the society columns of the 1920s as “the Magnificent Morgans.”  Raised to be “a prize for a rich, socially impeccable man” by her overbearing mother Laura, Gloria married the much older Reggie but soon discovered that he had gambled away his inheritance and was living on credit. When little Gloria came along in 1924, a Vanderbilt trust fund was established for her. Upon Reggie’s death in 1925, big Gloria was given access to that trust fund until her daughter came of age and used it to live large on two continents as a scintillating member of cafe society.

Poor little Gloria was left in the care of her doting but neurotic nurse Dodo and crazy, controlling grandma Laura. Concerned about little Gloria’s well being (and her inheritance) Laura and Dodo sought out Reggie’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and intimated that big Gloria was leading an immoral life that was harming her child. This set the stage for an epic custody trial that was played out in all its tawdry glory before the tabloid press.

The cast of characters is eclectic and eccentric. Although the tale itself is gossipy fun with details about the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous, courtroom histrionics and dramatic denouements, ultimately the story is quite sad. At the heart of it is a frightened child surrounded by selfish or indifferent adults who just didn’t understand or were incapable of giving her the love and emotional support that she needed.

The fact that little Gloria Vanderbilt was able to overcome her problematic childhood and become an artist, actress, writer and the socialite wife of men such as conductor Leopold Stokowski and director Sidney Lumet is a testament to her remarkable resilience. Well researched and clearly written, this book is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in social history or courtroom tales.

Check the WRL catalog for Little Gloria… Happy at Last

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It’s “Lost in the Stacks” week, and Bud is back with another post:

“Poppa, have you got any idea how a man took to jazz in the early days? Do you know how he spent years watching the droopy chicks in cathouses, listening to his cellmates moaning low behind the bars, digging the riffs the wheels were knocking out when he rode the rods – and then all of a sudden picked up a horn and began to tell the whole story in music? I’m going to explain that.”Really the Blues

So says Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow in the opening chapter of his strange but fascinating autobiography,  Really the Blues. Mezzrow, a white Jewish kid, was born in 1899. A wild child from the beginning, he landed in reform school at the age of 15 where he discovered and became completely enamored of black culture in general and New Orleans jazz in particular. He learned how to play the clarinet and immersed himself in the jazz world of the 1920s, a world that, for him, revolved around three big Ms – musicians, mobsters and marijuana. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about all three.

Really the Blues will appeal to music lovers because Mezzrow knew just about every famous jazz artist of the period. He jammed with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and many others. His unadulterated portraits of these talented people and their colorful milieu are fascinating.

The Mob also played a prominent role in Mezz’s life. He worked in some of Al Capone’s road houses, was turned onto opium by a member of Detroit’s vicious Purple Gang, and had Dutch Schulz try to muscle in on his marijuana distribution business.

And, yes, there is marijuana, lots of, as it was referred to in the ‘20s, muta, tea, reefer or muggles (the word pre-dates Harry Potter). In fact, Mezzrow was such a heavy user (a viper) and dealer that in his circle of acquaintances it became known by another slang term–the mezz–and was referenced as such in the song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The book contains gritty descriptions of the joys and subsequent lows of drug addiction. His four-year stint as an opium addict is particularly grim.

The stories are great, whether or not they’re all true is questionable, but what makes this book distinctive is the style in which it’s written.  As you can tell by the paragraph quoted above, the prose tends to flow like musical cadences and is rife with jazzy slang. This can make for disconcerting reading at first but it soon seems natural and appropriate to the author and what he’s describing.  If you have difficulty with the slang, the back pages contain a helpful glossary.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s a strange, often lurid tale, told in a distinctly unusual manner by an arch iconoclast. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy this ain’t it.  But if you have an interest in the history of music or the Chicago underworld or are just in the mood for something really unusual then give Really the Blues a try.  It’s a book you won’t forget.

Check the WRL catalog for Really the Blues

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Night of the GrizzliesHere’s the second of the books that “Bud” found lost in the stacks. Track it down today!

On the night of August 13, 1967 two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, Montana. The girls were not mauled by the same bear; the attacks took place in separate areas of the park miles away from each other. The story of this unprecedented incident ( it was the first time in Glacier’s history that anyone had died by bear attack) is related in the terrific, nonfiction book,  Night of the Grizzlies  by Jack Olsen.

The story starts in the early summer months of 1967 with a series of unsettling run-ins between bears and campers. One grizzly in particular was behaving aggressively towards people, and the bears in general seemed to be losing their fear of humans. The Park Service was not overly concerned with the situation because, after all, no one had ever been killed by a bear in Glacier National Park. In fact, they inadvertently increased the interaction between people and animals by not incinerating all of the garbage that accumulated around the camp sites. At night the bears came to feed off the trash and the campers loved to watch them. Unfortunately, this complacency would lead to disaster on that hot night in August.  The attacks and subsequent hunt for the man-eaters are related in fast-paced, gripping detail.

The story itself is compelling and the author, Jack Olsen, who primarily wrote about true-crime, has a knack for pacing and suspense. The tension just builds and builds to the point where  (yes, I’m going to use the old cliché) you can’t put the book down.  It’s a thrilling read. The attacks are described in all their gruesome detail but the gore is not emphasized. In fact, you come away with a sense of sadness and compassion for both man and animal.

In addition, to the book, the WRL also has a documentary about the bear attacks entitled, Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies created by the Montana PBS.  It’s an interesting follow-up to the book because you get to hear from many of the people involved in the incident and see the actual locations.  Particularly poignant are the Polaroid snapshots taken of the girls the day they died. Both book and documentary are highly recommended with a caveat. If you read it before going on a camping trip in the woods, you’re not going to sleep well.

NOTE:  This story was originally published as a three part article for Sports Illustrated in 1969.  When it was redrafted as a book a 37 page prologue was added that details the history of Glacier National Park and provides some natural history information about Grizzly bears. It’s interesting but not required reading. Starting with Chapter One will get you right into the story.

Check the WRL catalog for Night of the Grizzlies

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King Lehr and the Gilded Age“Bud” shares this as the first “Lost in the Stacks” week post:

Picture this scene:

A beautiful young woman sits in her boudoir.  Married that morning, she anxiously awaits her new husband.  In he comes and makes the following statement, “There are some things I must say to you, and it is better that I should say them now at the very beginning so that there can be no misunderstanding between us.”  “In public I shall be to you everything that a most devoted husband should be to his wife… I will give you courtesy, respect and apparently devotion. But you must expect nothing more from me. When we are alone I do not intend to keep up the miserable pretense, the farce of love and sentiment. Our marriage will never be a marriage in anything but name. I do not love you, I can never love you …The less we see of one another except in the presence of others the better.”  The shocked girl asks him why he married her? With a bitter laugh he replies, “Since you force me to do so I must tell you the unflattering truth that your money is your only asset in my eyes.”


Although this sounds like something  from a hackneyed romance novel, it’s not. This really happened to Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, and the story of her life with Harry Lehr, the gold digging cad that she was unfortunate enough to marry,  is recounted in the rather astonishing autobiography, King Lehr and the Gilded Age, by Lady Decies (formerly Elizabeth Drexel Lehr).

Elizabeth was a child of wealth and grew up happy and comfortable in late 19th century New York City. Harry Lehr was also born into money,  but when his father died he was left penniless, embittered and determined to make his way back into the privileged world of the wealthy. His plan was twofold, first he ingratiated  himself to society matrons by being ever so engaging, witty and fun. He survived on their largesse and kickbacks from suppliers whose goods he encouraged his benefactors to purchase. Secondly, he kept an eye out for a wealthy and pliable heiress to marry. Poor Elizabeth was gullible enough to fall for his smarmy charms.

What may be surprising to modern readers is that she didn’t divorce Harry the day after the shocking  wedding night declaration. Fear of shaming her mother and alienating herself from her society friends kept her bound to Lehr for decades despite the fact that he emotionally abused her and lavishly indulged all his whims with her money.

The narrative follows their unhappy life together as they travel amongst the rich and powerful in the U.S. and Europe during the early years of the 20th century.  We get a decidedly jaundiced view of the American “Downton Abbey” crowd, although many of the grandees mentioned will probably be unknown to people nowadays.

Elizabeth’s story is an interesting expose of a lost world and its dubious mores and manners. The book was considered quite shocking when it was originally published in 1938.  It’s an  engrossing page-turner for people who enjoy social history, women’s lives or scandal among the rich and famous.

NOTE: There’s a famous photo of Lady Decies taken by Weegee. Here you see Elizabeth going to the opera in 1943. The image makes a startling  contrast to the beautiful painted portrait of her on the cover of the book.

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Another true crime review written by Bud:

On the morning of January 8, 1937, the corpse of a young woman named Pamela Werner was found lying in a ditch beneath the supposedly haunted Fox Tower on the outskirts of Peking, China. Brutally murdered and savagely mutilated, the girl was only identifiable by her diamond-studded platinum wrist watch and the singular grey color of the iris in one of her slashed eyes.  The story of this murder and its ensuing police investigation are related in the terrific true-crime thriller, Midnight in Peking by Paul French.

Peking in the 1930s was a fascinating mixture of clashing cultures. The British lived quite comfortably inside a large walled section of the city known as the Legation Quarter. Outside of this area resided the Chinese nationals and a combustible mix of expats of all nationalities. Overshadowing everything was the impending threat of the Japanese Army, which had invaded China and was slowly making its way towards the city.

Amidst this turmoil the death of one girl seemed of little importance. But Pamela was the daughter of a former British consul, and had apparently been killed in Chinese territory, which could potentially make the case a political hot potato. To diplomatically resolve the problem, two detectives, one Chinese, Col. Han Shih-ching, and one British, a former Scotland Yard officer named Richard Dennis, were assigned to work the murder together.

Their queries took them from the debauched soirees of the insular Brits to the depraved dives of the lowest Chinese slums, but current events, hidden agendas and meddling superiors stymied the investigation and prevented them from bringing the case to a satisfactory resolution. Furious at this turn of events, Pamela’s grieving father took up the case and relentlessly pursued it. He hounded officials at home and abroad and drove himself into poverty trying to identify her killer and bring him to justice. The details of what he was eventually able to uncover about his daughter’s murder are heinous and heartbreaking.

Midnight in Peking is both an intriguing mystery and a colorful evocation of a famous city at a pivotal point in time. The author, Paul French, lives in Shanghai and is an expert in Chinese culture. This fast-paced, engrossing tale is recommended for true crime buffs and people with an interest in pre-war China.

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Bud gets this Halloween week started with a post that goes back to the dark side of the silent film days:

A small-town girl comes to Hollywood looking for stardom. She hits the big-time in her first starring role and fame and fortune are hers forevermore. It’s the old Hollywood fable. But there is another old Hollywood story, one that is far more common. In this scenario, the ingenue hits town, maybe has some success, maybe not, but there is no happy ending to her tinsel town tale. Booze, drugs, poor choices in men, personal problems or simple bad luck sends her on the downward slide to obscurity where the ending is almost always tragic.

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels by Michael Ankerich explores this dark side of the film industry with short biographies of fourteen silent movie actresses who found moderate success in the 1920s only to hit hard times in the ‘30s. For these poor souls, the Depression years really were depressing. Among the ladies detailed are:

Agnes Ayres: This once popular actress is best known for co-starring with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. But she put on weight, lost her looks and was prone to diva behavior and nervous breakdowns so the film industry gave her the heave-ho. She died alone at the age of 48, physically and emotionally depleted from years of struggling to regain the spotlight.

Barbara La Marr: La Marr, who played seductive vamps onscreen, was known as The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful. In her brief, scandal-plagued life she burned through five husbands, numerous lovers and a vast quantity of drugs and alcohol. She died at 30 from some mysterious wasting disease leaving behind a child and an unmatched reputation for living hard and fast.

Mary Nolan:  Mary had a hard knock life, much of which she brought on herself with her predilection for stimulants, drama and bad, bad men. After a brief stint as a Ziegfeld Girl she went on to become an international film star. But Mary had masochistic tendencies and her rendezvous with sadistic men did not lead to 50 Shades of Grey love affairs.  Instead, unsurprisingly, they resulted in scandal, severe physical injuries and continual pain that she numbed with narcotics. Poor Mary wrecked her career, lost her money and ended up singing in cheap saloons before the inevitable sad fade out at the age of 42.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the dark nature of these stories they are compulsively readable, poignant scandal sheets from the early years of the film industry.  The depressing nature of the stories is mitigated somewhat by the writing which is not mean-spirited or salacious. The author Ankerich is clearly sympathetic to these ill-fated starlets.

Each section is sourced, includes the actresses’ filmography and there are plenty of illustrations.  Recommended for film buffs or anyone with an interest in women’s history or celebrity scandals.

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The American press has always loved a good scandal or murder mystery. In 1897, they got both when a headless torso was found floating by a pier on the lower East Side of New York City. At first the police dismissed it as a ghoulish prank perpetrated by medical students. But when the severed limbs turned up in a ditch on the other side of town and stab wounds were found on the trunk, they realized this was not a prank but murder. Murder of the Century by Paul Collins tells the story of this ghoulish crime and its resulting trial.

In the 1890s, New York City’s major newspapers were involved in a brutal circulation war. Joseph Pulitzer’s old guard New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s up-and-coming New York Journal would do anything to out scoop the other. A headless body was manna from heaven for them and they went wild with it.

Reporters took the investigative lead over the police and identified both the victim, one William Guldensuppe, and the probable perpetrators, Martin Thorn and Augusta Nack.  Augusta was ready made for the tabloid press. A cold-blooded femme fatale, she ran an abortion service out of her apartment, was married and had not one but two lovers, the dead man Guldensuppe and the accused killer Thorn. With both murder and a sexual scandal on display the resulting courtroom trial had the whole country watching.

The author Paul Collins does a terrific job in relating this juicy tale that is flush with colorful characters and twisty plot turns. In addition, we get some interesting historical information about the turn-of–the-century newspaper business, police operations and courtroom procedures.  Well written, fast-paced and entertaining, Murder of the Century is a good choice for true crime fans.

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