Recommended Books: Lincoln’s Man at State, Escape from Tibet, the Greatest Magician, a Cat, and The Mess in AfghanistanFriday, November 23rd, 2012
The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards by Jim Steinmeyer (Tarcher/Penguin, $18)
Even though the name Harry Houdini was celebrated throughout the world, a former con man and saloon entertainer also developed an act that was so sensational, he became even more famous as a stand-alone illusionist. Vaudeville star Howard Thurston began developing his act during the early years of the last century, entertainment which included fast-paced tricks, humorous skits, and unparalleled showmanship. He helped revolutionize the magic show that evolved from street performances to stage-magic in such world centers as New York and London.
Jim Steinmeyer has written an entertaining account that examines this slice of Americana awhile spotlighting two of the most intriguing performers ever, Thurston and Houdini. The energy of this book is so intense the narrative conjures up a magic of its own. Detailed, atmospheric and extremely entertaining, this is an exceptional piece of historic reporting.
The Cat Who Came Back for Christmas: How a Cat Brought a Family the Gift by Julia Romp (Pkume, $15)
Julia Romp lives in Britain with her son, George, an autistic child who was quiet and withdrawn until one day when a small black-and-white stray cat appeared in their garden. Suddenly, George’s face lit up and he immediately began to bond with the animal they named Ben. For three years, life was good until the unthinkable happened. Ben went missing. Weeks and months passed and with Christmas approaching there seemed to be no joy in the family home. On December 21, Julia received a call from a family who lived more than fifty miles away with surprising news.
This is a captivating, genuinely touching book, a perfect story for the holiday season. And yes, it has a happy ending.
The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings (Plume, $17)
Michael Hastings likes to shine his journalistic light in dark places and due to his curiosity, he uncovers stories that most others miss.
A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, he is a seasoned reporter on international affairs for the magazine and a frequent contributor to such publications as The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.
Part of being a successful journalist is, of course, being at the right place at the right time and realizing it. For example, during the spring of 2010, Hastings found himself in the company of General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding general of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. With his guard down, General McChrystal bashed the Obama administration. When Hastings’ account was later published in Rolling Stone, the general was unceremoniously fired. This book picks up where that incident ends. Hastings reveals a shocking behind-the-scenes look at what he fears is an unwinnable war. Hastings’ observations are guaranteed to make readers squirm.
Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr (Simon & Schuster, $32.50)
William Henry Seward was a progressive governor of New York, later an outspoken U.S. senator and even an odds-on-favorite to win the 1860 Republican nomination for president. Ask Mitt Romney, things don’t always go as expected, especially in American politics.
Lincoln won both the nomination and election that season and when he began assembling his cabinet, he reached out to Seward. The new president named him Secretary of State, a brilliant choice that would change the very face of our nation.
This is an excellent biography. It is meticulously researched, crisply written, and accessible. Drawing on hundreds of sources long neglected by previous biographers, this book presents a portrait of one of the most complex and central figures of the Civil War and post-Civil War periods. Seward was such a vital cog in the Lincoln administration, he was targeted by assassins the night the president was killed.
Walter Stahr, a writer based in both New Hampshire and Virginia, had brought Seward out of the footnotes of history and into the bright literary acclaim he deserves. This is a fitting tribute, long overdue.
Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom by Yangzom Brauen (St. Martin’s Press, $15.99)
Kunsang was one of Tibet’s youngest Buddhist nuns who entered a nunnery near her remote mountain village. She married a monk, had two children, and began a life of peace and prayer. That solitude changed, however, when Chairman Mao’s Red Army moved to crush Tibetan independence.
Through the eyes of mother, daughter, and granddaughter, this is the vivid story of flight and survival. Documenting the terrors of the Chinese invasion and the family’s escape across the snowy Himalayas, this moving multi-generational memoir of three determined and strong women is a book filled with courage, love and hope.