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I can’t stop buying books

Posted by on May 4, 2014 in The Books That, Writing History | Comments Off on I can’t stop buying books

Seven months ago, I got back into reading in a big way. The bad news is that I’ve already boxed almost all my books in preparation for a planned move. I suppose I could unpack the boxes and find something to read, but it’s easier to just buy another book. And that’s what I’ve been doing.

I’ve purchased 49 books in the last 30 weeks, including 31 paper (physical) books and 18 e-books. I still prefer the physical book, but the e-books come in handy when traveling or after lights out.  I’ve read to completion 25 of the 49, and have started four others. Another five titles are lined up on the TBR (“to be read”) shelf, and I am eager to dive into them. I’ve already consigned to the DNF (“did not finish”) shelf three books that did not hold my interest. Nine are reference books, not meant for cover-to-cover reading. Numbers 47-49 will probably sit on my shelves, awaiting their turns until the end of time.

All of the new books are non-fiction. Almost all of them, in some way, were added to my reading pile with the idea of learning something about overcoming some of the hurdles I am currently facing in my writing, such as tackling unsolved historical true crimes or determining how best to handle significant gaps in the historical record. I also chose most of them because they looked like good reads.  Most are narrative histories, but the titles include: analytical history; case studies of the reshaping of history for dramatic and political purposes; the interplay of history, legend, and myth; and books about writing and publishing history. This last category includes two very different volumes I’d like to recommend to writers of history.  The first is How to Write History That People Want to Read, a book that is the subject of my next post.

Arizona History Convention, April 10-12, 2014 in Prescott

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014 in News | Comments Off on Arizona History Convention, April 10-12, 2014 in Prescott

Arizona History Convention, April 10-12, 2014 in Prescott

I’ll be chairing a great panel on Saturday morning, April 12, at this year’s Arizona History Convention, to be held at the Prescott Resort and Conference Center.  The panel title is “Turning Lives into Legends: Wyatt Earp, Pearl Hart, and Curly Bill.” Each of our speakers will examine how it is that three memorable Arizona residents–one lawman and two criminals–did or did not pass from their allotted fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety to legendary or even iconic status. Our speakers (and their topics) are:

* Anne Collier: “Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp”

* Jean E. Smith: “Pearl Hart: A Legend in Her Own Time”

* Paul Cool: “Curly Bill: Arizona’s All-in-One Robin Hood, Black Knight, and Byronic Hero”

Was Curly Bill Brocius an “outlaw hero”? I’ll be looking into how his contemporaries and Old West mythmakers drew upon legendary, mythical, and literary characters and character types to describe his personality and his brief but memorable time in Arizona Territory. Can only touch the high points in 20 minutes, but I hope the talk will induce you to grab me during the conference for more leisurely chats about this fascinating bad man.

The convention boasts over twenty panels, tours, and special events over three days, with pre- and post-conference special events on the 9th and 13th. For a look at the complete program and hotel information, see

Capture of New Mexico’s Rustler King John Kinney in Wild West magazine

Posted by on Feb 19, 2014 in News | Comments Off on Capture of New Mexico’s Rustler King John Kinney in Wild West magazine

Capture of New Mexico’s Rustler King John Kinney in Wild West magazine

The April 2014 issue of Wild West magazine includes my article on the capture of John Kinney by New Mexico militia (the “Shakespeare Guards” under Captain James Black), orchestrated by federal government Customs Bureau agents. The article provides, for the first time, the inside story on the events that led the Shakespeare Guards to John Kinney’s location inside Arizona Territory as he attempted to escape justice.  The narrative is drawn in part from a report prepared by Customs Special Agent William Howland, accompanied by Howland’s previously unseen map of the chase, discovered by yours truly in the National Archives in Washington, DC.  I’d like to thank Lincoln County War authority Frederick Nolan for his assistance in helping to get the story right and the editorial staff of Wild West magazine for improving the text’s readability and the article’s overall look.

The books that introduced me to and hooked me on the Old West

Posted by on Jan 25, 2014 in Articles, News, The Books That | Comments Off on The books that introduced me to and hooked me on the Old West

The books that introduced me to and hooked me on the Old West

Several blog entries ago, I credited Hollywood films and TV shows with spurring my interest in history. Oddly enough, although I probably watched more Western movies and TV shows than anything else in my youth, they did not kick start any particular desire to read about the Old West. Most, if not all the books I bought in my teens and twenties were by subscription or book club choices. It was not until my late 30s that I began in earnest to purchase books on the Old West. But now they own and overflow that 11-foot long book shelf, the biggest one in the house.

I’ll post later about the importance of the American Heritage Publishing Company to the early building of my library, but my first book on the West, at least that I still own, was a birthday or Christmas gift when I was ten. The volume was Indians of the Plains by Eugene Rachlis, my first American Heritage Junior Library volume. The volume did address plains Indian culture at a surface level, focusing on practices considered unusual by whites, but mainly stuck to the plains wars from the Sioux uprising of the 1860s until Wounded Knee. Rachlis’ text suffers from the usual early 60s stereotyping (“War was the Indian’s career and hobby, his work and his play.”), but it was nonetheless an exciting treatment.  I read the book repeatedly (of course, since I owned fewer than ten history books at this time, I read them all repeatedly).

Over the next three years, the AH Junior Library (AHJL) sent me a half dozen more profusely illustrated books on the eastern and trans-Mississippi frontiers: The California Gold Rush, Texas and the War with Mexico (the first of many Alamo books!), Cowboys and Cattle Country, The French and Indian Wars, Westward on the Oregon Trail, and Adventures in the Wilderness. I’d seen movies on all of these subjects, but the “facts” as presented in these Anglo-centric accounts made me much more aware of the difficulties experienced by whites in settling the new lands. And, despite the bias typical for the age, they did not ignore the injustice experienced by the earlier native American and Tejano settlers.

I gave up the AHJL subscription when I entered high school…. My limited funds were redirected to a new interest in European history and of course to social activities (girls and road trips). I did not purchase another book on the West until I graduated from college. During a solo driving trip from L.A. to Washington, D.C., I stopped in Tombstone, Arizona. At the Wyatt Earp museum in town I picked up John Myers Myers’ book, The Last Chance: Tombstone’s Early Years. In the decade since I had borrowed and read the library copy of Walter Noble Burns’s seminal Tombstone: Illiad of the Southwest, I had forgotten the complicated and dramatic story of the Earp-Cowboy conflict, which climaxed in lawman Earp’s unlawful, vengeance-filled vendetta ride. Another book I read over and over in the coming years.

Coincidentally, it was at this time I began work on a French Revolution/Napoleon manuscript (still unpublished) that consumed my next 25 years. As fascinating as the Tombstone story was, I let it and the rest of the West slide out of my consciousness. Sixteen years and some 350 book purchases later, I was reintroduced to the Earp story. While wandering in the fiction section of a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, I spied the iconic image of four determined looking gunmen walking abreast down a dusty Western street. The book was Loren Estleman’s novel, Bloody Season, which opens with Doc Holliday coughing up his lungs and hoping to live long enough to do what he needed to do. This OK Corral novel was intriguing in that Wyatt Earp, the central figure, was always front and center in other people’s thinking. His own mindset was elusive. An interesting approach.

This time, it was enough for me to immerse myself in the Tombstone story. In 1988, in short order, I purchased my own copies of Burns and Stuart Lake’s “golden age of biography” hagiography of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, as well as Waters’ debunking Earp Brothers of Tombstone, both the Myers and Jahns bios of Doc Holliday, Glenn Boyer’s fascinating inside story (I thought), I Married Wyatt Earp, the two Al Turner primary source books, The Earps Talk and The O.K. Corral Inquest, and Bartholomew’s venomous Wyatt Earp: The Untold Story (this volume cost me $10; I think I paid hundreds to get the hard-to-find, harder to read, and virtually unedited volume on Earp’s Kansas years). It took one more purchase to hook me forever. It came the following year, when my eye caught a rather ugly book cover graced by photos I knew well, including those of Earps, Clantons, and McLaurys. The book was And Die in the West, by Dr. Paula Mitchell Marks. More than anyone before her, Marks successfully addressed how complex personal, political, economic, and social forces could lead to lawlessness and violence along that stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. I did not agree with her even-handed treatment of the opposing sides, but her book influenced me profoundly. I tried to emulate her model when I wrote Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande. (As an aside, I have since had the pleasure to meet Dr. Marks, a most gracious person, known widely for her help to budding scholars, and was absolutely thrilled to have her endorse my book.)

By 1989, I still owned only some two dozen books on the West, but half of them were on Tombstone and Cochise County, Arizona Territory. It would take another decade before I began to do my own primary research on the topic, but the seeds had been planted.

The book that… first shaped my understanding of the American story …

Posted by on Jan 7, 2014 in The Books That | Comments Off on The book that… first shaped my understanding of the American story …

The book that… first shaped my understanding of the American story …

Nathanael Greene, the general who George Washington increasingly relied upon as the Revolutionary War dragged on, described in correspondence his experience commanding in the near-run campaign that turned the war’s tide, using words that one could apply to the larger American fight for independence: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” The American Revolution is an incredible story, a historical thriller, if you will.

Today I own several dozen books on events and participants of the Revolution and the early Republic. The shelves also hold tour guides to the sites of the Revolution. I’ve been to Boston, Concord, Washington’s Crossing, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Cowpens, and the eroding siege works of Yorktown, but sadly have not made it to Ticonderoga, Valley Forge and so much else.

My first book on the Revolution is the one in my library I’ve owned the second longest, following that ROTC Manual my dad gave to me. It was under the Christmas tree: my first profusely illustrated history book, The Golden Book of the American Revolution, adapted by Fred Cook from the American Heritage Book of the Revolution, with an Introduction by Pulitzer Prize historian Bruce Catton. The book is about 200 pages long. It’s packed for shipping right now, but I would put the number of images at 250-300, nearly all of them contemporary and in full color. That’s American Romantic Neoclassical artist John Trumbull’s 1844 painting of the “Death of General Mercer at Princeton” on the cover. The book has many of Trumbull’s paintings and other epic, romantic tableaux of land and sea battles and political and diplomatic high points (the signings of the Declaration and the Treaty of Paris). Here too are contemporary drawings and paintings and museum displays of uniforms, weaponry, ships, and military and naval equipment and supplies. Life and brutal warfare along the frontiers among settlers, militia, redcoats, and Native Americans are part of the illustrated story. Among the most interesting images are those which reproduce the revolutionary political broadsides and artwork whipped up by Sam Adams, Revere and others to foment rebellion even when the British went through their periodic pre-war attempts to calm tensions. For a west coast boy, which I was at the time, it was my first good look at the colonial cities and towns and the remarkable Eastern seaboard terrain featured in the paintings, as well as the man-killing winter camps, so foreign to my own experiences in southern California suburbia. The many contemporary military maps, which I had learned to read in that ROTC manual, gave me a pretty good understanding of some of the challenges faced by opposing commanders and their often badly dressed, equipped, and fed men. Formal portraits of statesmen and soldiers and other images further flesh out the story.

A beautiful book, although my copy is a little worse for wear. You’ll note that the top of the spine is missing, the result of a poodle’s irritation at being restricted to my bedroom during the day for some reason.

Though adapted for young readers (grades 7-9), it was not a childen’s text but an edited for length version of an adult level American Heritage publication. I do think this is the way to go for young readers with any sign of historical curiosity. Because of the upper grade/adult text and imagery, age 9 readers (like I was) can revisit the book at 11 and 13 and beyond, comfortable and challenged at each new examination.

If you’re looking for good modern histories, you might start with 1776 by David McCullough, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, or the more comprehensive A Leap in the Dark and Almost a Miracle by John Ferling.  After I moved to Maryland, I had it in my head to write about the most reliable regiments in Washington’s Continental Army, the Maryland Line. Her regiments were seemingly everywhere, from covering the disastrous retreat from Long Island to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Busy with other projects, I never got the time to research it. I hope someone else is working to tell their story.

Beyond the “what happened and who did it” (or at least one version), the book introduced me to a world of ideas that inspired our nation’s independence and the founding of our constitutional republic. My understanding of our founding has evolved over the last half century, but no book has been important to me than this gift under the Christmas tree.

Favorite books read in 2013

Posted by on Dec 13, 2013 in Articles, News | Comments Off on Favorite books read in 2013

Favorite books read in 2013

Two can’t-put-it-down page-turners topped my list for 2013. The books were biographies of 1960s cultural icons> the one a rock band that changed the world, and the other a crafty if intellectually limited, self-absorbed, bloody-minded, puppet-master who epitomized that decade’s dark side. In both instances, the authors uncovered important new sources, stirring their stories into the well-known histories to paint fresh and highly revealing portraits and brilliantly analyzed assessments of their subjects and the worlds they inhabited. Strong  writing boosted my enjoyment of each book. If one volume narrowly edged the other out for top spot, that was a function of subject matter.

  1. Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In (Crown Archtype): An extraordinary achievement. Lewisohn places John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard “Ringo Starr” Starkey and their four struggling, fragmented, and tragic families squarely within the context of rough-and-tumble of post-World War II Liverpool. Lewisohn explains how four boys and young men with vastly different personalities found kindred spirits and aspirations in one another, coalescing into a band of brothers ready to take on the world, when not periodically, tentatively abandoning their shared dreams. One remarkable aspect is their shared unwillingness to listen to anyone’s voices and opinions except their own….unless it was that of John, the true leader of the group in its early days. They ignore the urgings of every family member and teacher who sees talent and pleads with them to stick to their studies. They stick to their guns in matters in all matters of their evolving rough-hewn art of music, ignoring the conventional wisdom handed out by virtually everyone in the business. The young men listen only to themselves and seem at times to be their own worst enemies. (Lewisohn does not wallow in their unattractive qualities, but neither does he ignore them.) Maturity does begin to emerge, and, while always maintaining their equality in any business dealings, they begin to listen to and entrust their futures to perhaps the only two men who could have prevented them from falling apart, and who could have brought them to stardom, Brian Epstein and George Martin. What made these self-made posh Englishmen capable of taking on the rough Liverpudlians are stories in themselves, and here again Lewisohn does his homework. The author also explains the roles of Stu Sutcliffe and his German friends in the Beatles’ evolution from quaffed leather-clad rockers to more polished Beatle-booted future stars. Pete Best may have been a mediocre, even lousy, drummer who simply had to be jettisoned, but Lewisohn honestly sets forth Best’s importance to the band (through his mother, if little else) during a period when their hard work seemed to get them nowhere. The book takes the reader only through 1962, with the rolling success of Love Me Do, the recording of Please, Please Me and the writing of I Saw Her Standing There. All the pieces are in place for 1963 and the outburst of Beatlemania in Britain. It will be a long wait for volume 2…. Who will take longer to produce a new volume? Lewisohn or George R. R. Martin?  Definitive. Essential reading for anyone interested in The Beatles, popular music and the music business, the 1960s, post-war England, etc. A surprising story of that unfolded against all odds.


  1. Jeff Guinn, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster): While some long-time Manson aficionados complained that there was nothing new here, move along, I found the Guinn’s take on the murderous puppet-master a compelling read. The author unearthed long-hidden family members, who revealed fresh info on Manson’s youth that effectively replaces the lies he told about his own family origins. Guinn’s Manson was a manipulative little bastard from the get-go, a quality he honed in reform school and prison. Perhaps never have the Dale Carnegie courses on how to win friends and influence people been put to such bad use as by this narcissistic creep. Guinn explains how Manson was able to take advantage of the highly transitional 60s culture in California and play upon the weaknesses of the young women (like Leslie Van Houten, Lynette Squeeky Fromme, etc. ) and men who were the detritus of a growing societal tolerance for (or at least inability to deal with) previously unthinkable behaviors. As crafty as Charlie was (and remains), he was little more than a con man whose cons required increasing elaboration and increasing cover-up of failed ventures. The terrible murders he unleashed were little more than ham-handed attempts to cover up his earlier mistakes. A fascinating read of some ugly and stupid people, as well as the often clueless California musicians (notably Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher) who briefly went down Manson’s rabbit hole before crawling out just in time.


  1. Oscar Wilde, Complete Works (Collins Edition): Wilde’s work appears in a number of collections. This relatively complete one benefits from the analytical essays. After re-watching the only PBS miniseries on Lily Langtry that first introduced me to Oscar’s brilliance and tragedy, I decided to go beyond The Importance of Being Earnest and read his poems, essays, short stories, novels and other plays. Only about half-way through (the stories – Canterville Ghost, Dorian Gray – and plays are still to go), but this reader is taken by his facility for topsy-turvey aphorisms found in the essays that proceeded the plays and his heart-on-his sleeve profundity in De Profundis. If Shakespeare invented modern English, Wilde reinvented it.


  1. Peter Clarke, Mr. Churchill’s Profession (Bloomsbury Press, 2012):  Junior army officer, adventurous war correspondent, politician, memoirist, historian-biographer, statesman, spokesman for the British Empire, the US-British alliance, and a US of Europe, Winston Churchill may have led the single richest life of anyone on the planet during his 90 years (1874-1965). An aristocrat of very little means, he found in writing both the means to live an important life and, equally critical to him, to live life large. While writing my blog series on “The books that…” this US-UK dual citizen/subject-at-birth quickly realized that Churchill was the first historian whose works beyond my parents Christmas gift I sought out. Since his death, a number books have been published on various aspects of his literary career. While Clarke’s book ostensibly focuses on Churchill’s final major opus, his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples,  his narrative builds to this point, by telling the twin story of how Sir Winston came to write each of his major works, how his political career both inspired and hamstrung his literary efforts, how he relied upon a team of researchers, and increasingly in his old age, writers, to draft and polish the millions of words published under his name. Essential to an understanding of Churchill’s literary career is the work of his agents and lawyers to hard-line negotiate brilliant contracts that enabled him to live beyond his means, even to pay for his working vacations and those of his entourage in places like the French Riviera. The financial legerdemain and literary subterfuges are not the whole story. At the core, Churchill’s brilliance as a biographer (especially of his most noted ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough), and war leader during Great Britain’s darkest hours are likewise an integral part of the story. I’ve also read David Reynolds’ In Command of History: Churchill Writing and Fighting the Second World War, and a couple more volumes in the genre are on deck, but recommend Clarke’s book as a starter in the subject.


  1. Several Joan of Arc biographies read in recent years spurred me to branch out into the larger stories of the Anglo-French Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and England’s Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), both conflicts providing the background for Shakespeare’s series of historical plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Parts I-II; Henry V; Henry VI, Parts I-III; and Richard III). Last year’s plunge into Juliet Barker’s Conquest: The English Kingdom in France and this year’s enjoyment of the magnificent British TV four-play production of The Hollow Crown led me to re-read Alison Weir’s The Wars of the Roses (1995). Perhaps the foremost popular historian of the Lancaster-York-Tudor conflicts, Weir rightfully takes her readers back to the conflict’s origins with the unfortunate reign of Richard II and the usurpation of his throne by Henry (IV) Bolingbroke. She makes clear that it was less a conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York than a convoluted struggle for power and position among perhaps a dozen English families, whose magnates were supported in promise-today/betray-tomorrow fashion by scores of lesser lords and ladies. Weir breathes life into scores characters in her account of this convoluted era of English history. The book stops short of the reign of Shakespearian villain Richard III and his overthrow Henry Tudor at Bosworth. For that part of the story, I turned from Weir, whose research and analytical choices for the Rickardian story are accused as being suspect, to another sort of writer and book. Bertram Fields, The Royal Princes: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes (1998) is an entertainment lawyer who decided to try his hand at historical true crime, the case against Richard III for the murder of his nephews in the Tower of London. Fields finds much to be intellectually troubled by in the traditional story written down by Thomas More and made immortal by Shakespeare during the reign of the Tudors. Fields admits the evidence against Richard III but finds it limp. Far more compelling to his mind is other circumstantial evidence against Richard’s enemies, including Henry Tudor, who had much more to gain by the princes’ deaths. The times and the characters populating the Wars of the Roses will forever remain controversial. Although neither author will have the last word, their books are well worth reading, Weir for her ability to narrate a complex story with the reader squarely in mind, Fields for his ability to unearth and fairly weigh evidence.

The Books That… Introduced me to literature (Part 5)

Posted by on Nov 30, 2013 in Articles, The Books That, Writing History | Comments Off on The Books That… Introduced me to literature (Part 5)

tale-of-two-cities-book-cover-1-197x300One book not in my library is J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Never read the thing. It was never assigned in high school or college literature classes. My education was, as a result, entirely incomplete. I see now (from Wikipedia) that there is so much I never learned about literate whining.

Catcher in the Rye was widely censored when I was in high school. Father Earl La Riviére, our 9th grade English instructor did push the envelope, as far as many parents were concerned, by assigning Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician. Sure, it was, appropriately for a Catholic school, a novel about St. Luke’s coming to Christianity in time to write the third Gospel, but it had the distressing feature of describing the pre-Christian Luke as somewhat less than chaste. In the words of Father Earl, parents were annoyed that the pre-saint engaged in too much pre-marital “hoochie coochie.” We read it anyway.

Dear and Glorious Physician is not in my library. Neither is much of what I read in high school. I don’t remember actually tossing George Eliot’s Silas Marner in the trash, but am quite sure I did as soon as it was convenient. Many of my subsequent book reports referred to Silas: “This book was the worst thing I’ve read since Silas Marner.” “This book was almost as boring as Silas Marner.” I’m sure I would appreciate it more now, but I’ve never given it a second chance.

We were introduced to a large dose of poetry, all of it written by dead white guys. I don’t recall reading any Emily Dickenson at this time, and I’d already been introduced to Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.’s mind-numbing “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” In Father Earl’s class, we had to memorize and recite most of what we read: Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride, Noyes’ The Highwayman (horses evidently played a prominent role in my poetical instruction) and some less controversial poems from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that made it into the curriculum. I remember that I was unable to completely recite the first 125 lines of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I think I got as far as Line 75 and then jumbled it up a bit. The darkness of Poe’s poetry (Annabel Lee, The Raven) appealed to me.

Maybe this is to acknowledge the “F” I received when the class was called upon to write poetry. I wrote an epic that told a pretty unique story:

On the eighteenth of April in seventy-five/Hardly a man is now alive/Who sailed the ocean blue/In fourteen hundred and ninety two/One kiss my bonny sweetheart/He said to his friend that night/And I shall be back with the Old North Church/Before you give me a signal light…

It went on from there. It was a unique story that I thought deserved applause. While I can’t remember how it ended, I do remember the failing grade for plagiarism.

We read quite a bit from the other side of the Pond. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and quite a bit of Dickens stand out in my mind. (I did not discover the uniquely imitable Bulwer-Lytton for another ten years.)

Off the top of my head, I recall multiple assignments of Poe (both poems and short stories, including The Pit and the Pendulum), Hawthorne (House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter), and Dickens (A Christmas Carol, of course, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities). I was assigned Great Expectations again in college. On neither occasion did this coming of age story make much of an impression. I quickly ditched or re-sold both copies.

With one exception, none of these novels, short stories, and poems made any impression that lasted much beyond the assignment or semester exam. Ahhh, but A Tale of Two Cities. How many novels open AND close with two of the most memorable sentences in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Dickens’ novel, heavily drawn from Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution (1837), is an intimate story of resurrection for one family and of redemption for its self-indulgent hero. The book is thrilling, increasingly so as the Reign of Terror grows in guillotine-driven ferocity. While many characters are not fully drawn, Dickens’s Madame Defarge is both understandably righteous in her wrath and figuratively vampiric in her unquenchable blood thirst.

A Tale of Two Cities grabbed me like no other novel in my youth. But its real importance was that it introduced me to the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic era. I became fascinated by the behaviors exhibited by mankind at times when a stable social order is overthrown or in places, like the American frontier, where one has not yet been established. Men and women at their worst, at their best, and sometimes just trying to muddle through out of the way of bullets, blades, and disease. A Tale places an ordinary man, in this case a gifted loser, in the middle of great chaos and illustrates that individuals can and do make a difference. However ennobling is self-sacrifice, I recommend it be achieved without the presence of a wicker head-basket.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my first and still unrealized effort at book writing was a survey of the French Army’s leadership during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.  The chapters on how various generals navigated the Reign of Terror, or failed to survive it are my favorites. Maybe one day I’ll revisit the work and publish it.

The Books That…(Part 4)

Posted by on Nov 23, 2013 in News, The Books That, Writing History | Comments Off on The Books That…(Part 4)

ROTC ManualMy oldest book, in terms of publication date, is the Memoirs of General Count Rapp, Aide de Camp to Napoleon, published 1823 in London. The book I have owned the longest was a hand-me-down from my father. In the mid-50s, we lived in Alabama while he attended the Air Force’s War College. One of his text books was a book issued by the US Army in 1956, American Military History, 1607-1953. Presumably, my dad also studied air power (this was the Air Force college, after all), but I do not recall seeing any strategic, operational or tactical air studies.

In any case, at some point my dad gave the book to me. It was the start of a lifelong immersion in military history, both American and world. The book is a text, and so the generally reliable account serves a purpose other than to educate or entertain the general reading public. Though I did not realize it for many years, the volume had a profound impact on me (not “effect,” but “impact,” as in a single meteor creating the dominion of mammals). On my reading and buying habits, and ultimately my writing.

The book’s anonymous authors aimed to educate military officers in the proper application of the principles of war, as exemplified in American military history, especially combat operations. The book’s larger purpose was to help the army transform men and women with officer insignia on their uniforms into leaders, professionals who would identify with the men and women in their commands (small or large), accurately analyze problems (however fluid the situation), make an endless stream of correct decisions, and vigorously supervise the effective execution of those decisions in service of the nation’s survival.  Phew! A tall order.

The book’s chapters on American warfare from colonial times through Korea are the platform for these lessons in leadership. At the end of each, the reader is asked a series of questions. Some (“What is the significance in American military history of the date 19 April 1775?”)  were apparently designed to see if the student paid any attention at all. Others (“Analyze the conduct of both sides at Bunker Hill showing how each did or did not observe each of the nine principles of war.”) were tools to develop the critical thinking skills required of military officers.

The book influenced me in several ways. First, at an early age (certainly before age 10), I was exposed to an adult appreciation of the nation’s long and eventful military history, especially its miraculous birth, it’s battle for survival four score and seven years later, and its serial forays onto the world stage, often hesitant and, up to 1953, often decisive. I read through the book’s nearly-500 pages more than once and wanted to know more, about America’s wars, and eventually others. My parents took the hint, as we shall see.

I could accurately say that reading American Military History inexorably led me to write my first book, Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande. While earlier historians had viewed the conflict as nothing more than a disgraceful episode in Texas Ranger history, or, less frequently, a dramatic example of Anglo mistreatment of Mexican Americans, my background led me to a far different take. I was the first to examine the El Paso Salt War of 1877 as primarily a military event. For that reason, I was quite pleased by the book’s positive review in the Journal of America’s Military Past.

Second, I viewed war through the prism of leadership, through the ability of individuals possessing natural talents (or lack of same), professional and practical education (or lack of same), and luck of the draw, to influence events, even change history, for better or worse. In furthering my self-education, I gravitated towards books that focused on leadership rather than technology. For that reason, I might thrill to a reading of John Paul Jones’s remarkable “I have not yet begun to fight” victory in the Bonhomme Richard over the British H.M.S. Serapis, but I have no clue how a naval commander got his sailing ships to move in the desired directions. (I eventually branched into reading military books that addressed facets of war other than leadership, such as the experience of combat at the individual and small unit level, but it is decision making that still interests me most. Technologies change dramatically, the human factor not so much.)

My first attempt at a book was one on the leadership of the French Army during the years of the First Republic and Empire. This grand opus is currently gathering dust, but served as a writer’s incubator. Eventually, this focus on leadership found its way into Salt Warriors and is essential to understanding what happened to the FBI’s investigation into the 1934 kidnapping of June Robles, my current writing project.

American Military History was eventually updated to cover operations through 1958. My own university ROTC course in military history (taught by, and I’m not kidding, a Captain Bombard) was based on this already outdated version. I was, I’m sure, the only student in class who had read the book while in elementary school. By 2004, the date of the latest edition, the book had expanded to two volumes, with roughly 900 pages. (BTW, these are online at The 2004 edition includes the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The analysis of the latter conflict and the identification of lessons to be drawn by new officers were premature, to say the least.

The Books That (Part 3): The Hollywood History of the World

Posted by on Nov 16, 2013 in Articles, The Books That | Comments Off on The Books That (Part 3): The Hollywood History of the World

The Books That (Part 3): The Hollywood History of the World

This would be a good place to acknowledge that Hollywood first turned me on to many of the historical persons and events that now fill some of my shelves.  Certainly my books on frontier icons Davy Crockett, George Custer, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James owe their shelf-feet to productions starring Fess Parker, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Hugh O’Brian, Burt Lancaster, Clu Guluger, and Tyrone Power.

My father did not talk much about his World War II experiences (which gave him a bomber-load of medals, including the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster). My interest in WW2 was stirred by the many postwar combat movies, but the footage that influenced me most was found on the weekly documentary series on CBS, The Twentieth Century, hosted by former front-line combat reporter Walter Cronkite.

Another Walter, Disney by name, fed me a steady and welcome diet of historical characters, including Elfego Baca (played by Robert Loggia), “Texas John” Slaughter (Tom Tryon), and Francis Marion (a pre-Airplane/Police Squad Leslie Neilson portraying Marion as a combination Davy Crockett and Scarlet Pimpernel, as this lyric attests: “Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat, nobody knows where the Swamp Fox is at.”). I’ve only purchased Marion’s biography, but the Baca and Slaughter stories presented by Uncle Walt deepened my interest in the historical West.

Disney also turned me on to another fox, Don Diego de la Vega’s alter ego Zorro. I was so captivated by Guy Williams’ dashing performance, that I was never able to accept him in any role without his signature mustache. For that reason alone, I could not abide Lost in Space. I mentioned above Tyrone Powers’ Jesse James and Errol Flynn’s Custer, but it was their swashbucklers that I had a young viewer’s passion for, even more than westerns.

I had the good fortune to be around for Hollywood’s answer to the television set: the widescreen epic. The “cast of thousands” movies thrilled me, as they did others with fertile young minds. But they did something else. They sent me to the library, or, in one case, to my sister’s room. She had evidently seen the Kirk Douglas film, “Spartacus,” because she came home with the glossy tie-in book. I’m sure there were pages devoted to the stars, director, cinematographer, etc., but the pages that stuck in my mind were those devoted to explaining and illustrating (though screen shots), the Roman way of making war. I’ve since purchased dozens of books on Greece and Rome, and read more, but this movie tie-in gave me my start.

Movies about Roman legions, swashbuckling swordsmen, quick draw lawmen and bombing runs over Tokyo did more than spur my reading and purchase of books on these and related topics. These and other films generated a lifelong interest in how my favorite movies and programs were made. Even after culling, I still own several shelves of books on various movie genres, television programs, actor filmographies, and the oeuvres of directors and producers. Books about Westerns and Western stars take up the largest share, followed swashbucklers and other costume dramas, historical epics, comedies, science fiction, and musicals, in that order. My most recent film book is A Splurch in the Kisser, a survey of Blake Edwards’ career. My most dog-eared volume is Tony Thomas’ Great Adventure Films, one of the many outstanding surveys of Hollywood published by Citadel Press, back when they used to do that sort of thing.

Perhaps the most important film book I have, the one that refuses to follow the pack, is George MacDonald Fraser’s Hollywood History of the World (1988, revised 1966). I own a half-dozen similarly titled books, and they all say the same thing: Hollywood gets everything wrong.  In fact, that’s the conventional wisdom every time a historically based film is released. Newspaper articles bullet the many errors found in every such movie. 

Attendees in discussion websites harp on all the mistakes made. Fraser (screenwriter of the star-studded Three/Four Musketeer films of the mid-70s and author of the twelve Flashman novels) suggests something different. For an industry whose sole purpose is to make money through entertainment, isn’t it amazing how much it gets right? We, the public, know an awful lot about the way people in distant times and lands looked, behaved, dressed, dined, and made war because Hollywood took the time to research the past. Two-hour movies are works of fiction. Compression and transposition of characters and events are necessary. Changes to who did what to whom are absolutely necessary to enhance the dramatic and visual impact. We can rightly complain when filmmakers fail on that score. But sheesh, so what if Lawrence was a lot shorter and homelier than Peter O’Toole? So what if people and actions are turned around to fit the needs of the screenplay. We still understand a lot of how the Revolt in the Desert was won and how imperial Europe’s needs in the Middle East screwed up the future.

Perhaps no performance did more to interest me in a historical person than did O’Toole’s in Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve seen the film every single it was released to theaters, and have purchased it on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. I bought my first biography of T.E. Lawrence, a small paperback by Anthony Nutting either just before or after I first saw the movie. Nutting, the author of Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive (1961) was an adviser on the Lean film. I’m sure that my pre-teen brain no more understood the psychology of Lawrence offered up by Nutting than I did the Oscar-robber performance of O’Toole. I eventually purchased three more bios, including a bloody awful psycho-babble take, the estate-authorized bio by Jeremy Wilson, and, finally, Michael Korda’s Hero: The Life and Legend of LoA (2010). It’s the first book I’ve read that makes sense of this extraordinary and tortured genius. Read it.

The Books That… Part 2: Growing Up With Books

Posted by on Nov 15, 2013 in Articles, News, The Books That | Comments Off on The Books That… Part 2: Growing Up With Books

The Books That… Part 2: Growing Up With Books

For ten years until his retirement, my father was figuratively chained to the Minuteman missile. His evenings, apart from dinner with the family, were largely spent reading and writing technical memoranda and reports designed to help ensure that the United States’s strategic nuclear warhead missile remained a jump ahead of Russian defenses. For that reason, I rarely saw a book in his hand. My mother’s night stand supported the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins, authors Mr. Spock undoubtedly will refer to in a future century as “the giants.”

Both parents encouraged their children to read. Our home library did not reflect the widest of tastes, but did allow for a child’s “cultural literacy” before that term became popular. I spent countless hours poring through our Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, A-Z. I devoured selected portion of Grolier’s ten-volume Book of Knowledge (one of the 1950s editions). Two favorites I recall are the story of Nathan Hale and the “Song of Roland.” Also to my liking was the LIFE World Library. I read some two dozen volumes, especially the chapters on each nation’s history. Repeatedly, I visited my favorite nations, France and Ireland, whose histories particularly fascinated me. (My mother is from Ireland and her father’s line came across with the Normans.) Out of all these books, only one volume still holds space in my library, the LIFE volume on Ireland.

The shelves held the 40-volume Yale Shakespeare, a complete set of the Bard’s plays. The tragedy Julius Caesar was my favorite, while such works as MacBeth and Hamlet blew right past me. I also read the occasional abridged novel in the Readers Digest Condensed version. (The Ugly American is the only one that springs to mind, but there were others.)

LIFE and LOOK magazines frequently gave extensive space to book excerpts, such as MacArthur’s Reminiscences or McKinley Cantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War. A well-illustrated 1965 LIFE article on Waterloo was not my first introduction to the event, but had glorious color images that stirred my imagination.

Our home library only whet my appetite for more. Early on, I was an avid user of the school library. I read a few Hardy Boys mysteries, but it was the history and especially biography stacks that drew my attention. I fell in love with two (actually three) book series intended for young readers. These were the Landmark (or American Landmark) Books, World Landmark Books, and Grosset and Dunlop’s Signature Books. Published in the 1950s and early 1960s, they were written by accomplished historians, including William Shirer and Thomas Costain, and acclaimed historical novelists like C.S. Forrester. Again, I don’t recall all of the scores of titles I read, but they included biographies of Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison, Francis Marion, and Florence Nightingale, focusing inordinately on their conveniently, lightly documented childhood years. The Landmark and Signature histories presented episodes from every age of mankind, from the peopling of America to the space race.  Decades later, I purchased a few dog-eared volumes that had been particular favorites. The greatly fictionalized biographies of American icons George “Autie” Custer and Wyatt Earp illustrate the transformation of biography and history into legend and mythology aimed at young readers. I ate it all up.