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charlatan-9781400136070-lgI wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting when I bought Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, but the topic caught my attention. I have to say that I loved it. It was a narrative type of non-fiction that I like to read and Pope Brock can tell an intriguing story.

Of course, he also found a great subject to write about, which is half of the battle.

In the early 20th century, confidence man John Brinkley came up with his ultimate money-making scheme. He would use surgery and goat testicles to restore male virility. It makes most men cringe nowadays, but think about some of the odd things we still do to maintain our youth that involved surgery.

Brinkley also developed a sideline of selling potions and pills that turned out not to contain what they claimed to contain. This sort of thing was going on before Brinkley with snake oil salesmen and still continues today.

I found myself reading the book and thinking how could people fall for this, but then I thought about the modern equivalents and wondered how many times I’ve been taken in without knowing it.

Brinkley made a fortune off his quack theories and inspired a lot of copycat “doctors.” He also left behind dozens of dead and maimed people, all the while claiming success.

So, if Brinkley was the antagonist, the protagonist would be Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. I’m not sure about other readers, but I just didn’t like Fishbein. I actually found myself hoping that he would fail in his efforts to destroy Brinkley. On the other hand, I found myself cheering for Brinkley at times because he wouldn’t be stopped. He kept reinventing himself to work around the restrictions that were thrown at him. I admired that even though I hated what he was doing.

dr-_john_r-_brinkley

“Dr.” John Brinkley looking like a medical professional.

 

I’ve seen a few movies and read some books lately where I didn’t like either the protagonist or antagonist. Who do you root for then?

Besides his gross medical malpractice, Brinkley also had an impact on politics, radio, and country music.

One reason why Brinkley was successful with his scams was because he was a master marketer. His initial marketing efforts dealt with newspaper advertising and direct mail. He recognized the marketing potential of the new media of the day, radio, and made the most of it.

When the government started to crack down on how the airwaves were used, Brinkley moved south of the border and opened a radio station in Mexico that eventually broadcast more than a million watts. Not only was this more powerful than his Oklahoma radio station had been, it was more powerful than all of the U.S. radio stations combined.

Besides pitches for his products and surgeries, Brinkley also presented entertainment. Many of the performers he chose went on to become pioneers in country music.

When Fishbein started to have an impact on Brinkley’s goat gland empire, he used his radio popularity to move into politics and very nearly became elected governor of Oklahoma as a third-party candidate.

I found Charlatan to be a fascinating story. I kept guessing at what Brinkley would do next to outwit Fishbein and his other detractors.

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AngelsThis is an interview that I did recently for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail. It was put together by Lifestyle Editor Crystal Schelle.

Name: James Rada Jr.

Age: 49

City in which you reside: Gettysburg, Pa.

Day job: Freelance writer

Book title: “Battlefield Angels: The Daughters of Charity Work as Civil War Nurses”

Genre: History

Synopsis: The Daughters of Charity were the only trained nurses in the country at the start of the Civil War. Their work on the battlefields, in hospitals, on floating hospitals and in POW camps helped saved thousands of soldiers’ lives.

Publisher: Legacy Publishing

Price: $19.95

Website: www.jamesrada.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/jamesradajr

Twitter: @jimrada

How did you discover the stories of the nuns at Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md.?

I was working for a newspaper in Emmitsburg, and I encountered sisters at meetings and other events. When they found out that I was interested in history, some of them told me about the Daughters of Charity’s involvement in the Civil War. Never having heard the story before, I was interested and wanted to know more.

Why did you feel it was important to tell their story?

While the involvement of Catholic sisters is a little-known story, the Daughters of Charity’s story is more obscure. The Daughters of Charity were, by far, the largest group of Catholic sisters involved in the Civil War. However, when you read newspaper accounts or diaries, they are usually called Sisters of Charity or Sisters of Mercy. These were different orders. I wanted to call attention specifically to the Daughters of Charity and separate their work from the work of the other orders.

How did their training differ from that of others, like Clara Barton?

Daughters of Charity first became involved in health care in 1823. At first, their role was administrative, but they soon expanded into nursing. In the years leading up to the war, many of the sisters gained experience in large-scale health crises by nursing the sick during yellow fever and typhoid outbreaks. As they took on the role of nursing more often, one of the sisters even authored a textbook on the subject, which was used as a training manual for other sisters. They were even caring for Confederate soldiers in New Orleans before war broke out. Once hostilities began, they not only had the experience to help with a large number of casualties, but they had trained sisters in most of the states in the war, ready to go and help.

Barton was not working as a nurse when the war began. She joined with one of the many aid societies that formed after war broke out. These societies were groups of volunteers who were trained in how to provide care to soldiers. They were also limited somewhat in where they could go. This drove her to become an independent nurse in order to be able to go to the soldiers who were still on the battlefield.

During your research, what surprised you the most about the Daughters of Charity?

The first thing that caught my attention was that the Daughters of Charity were so trusted by both the Federal and Confederate governments that they were allowed to cross lines in order give care to any soldier who needed it. This ended after the first year of the war, though, when Confederate spies disguised as sisters were caught.

The other thing that really surprised me was that the Daughters of Charity were the only trained nurses in the country at the time of the war. I guess I had always considered nursing as having a much older history. Most nursing was done by family members or, if the patient was in a hospital, by other ambulatory patients. It wasn’t considered a lady-like career.

During a time when disease was the biggest killer of soldiers, how were the sisters able to save so many men?

Their experiences, which were captured in the textbook I mentioned earlier, allowed them to have a lot of practical knowledge. They knew that patients in a well-ventilated area recovered better. They had seen that patients kept in clean clothes and on clean sheets had fewer infections. They didn’t know why at the time, only that it worked, and that was what was important to them. When disease broke out, they were willing to risk exposure themselves in order to treat the symptoms that soldiers suffered. In many cases, that was enough help to allow the soldiers to recover.

What do you believe would have been the outcome of triage medicine if more women like the Daughters of Charity were on the battlefield?

I believe more soldiers’ lives could have been saved. The Daughters of Charity found themselves stretched pretty thin throughout the war. There were always places they were needed. Some sisters worked in hospitals, while others were sent from hot spot to hot spot. After the Battle of Antietam, only two sisters could be sent to help. When Gen. McClellan found this out, he was a bit upset because he had been hoping for many more, but there weren’t any available to send. Now, once the soldiers were taken off the battlefield and sent to a hospital, they were often cared for by Daughters of Charity there. For instance, many of the Antietam casualties were sent to hospitals in Frederick, Md., that were run by the Daughters of Charity.

What do you hope people learn from your book?

I want people to know what these ladies did during the war. Their contributions were just as important as the battles. Without their knowledge and experience, the casualties during the Civil War could have been much greater.

Where can readers purchase your novel?

While any bookstore can order the book from Ingram, I do know that Turn the Page in Boonsboro carries copies on the shelf. The book also can be purchased from online retailers, including Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, or from my website, www.jamesrada.com. If someone wants a signed copy, then either Turn the Page or my website is the place to get one.

 

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image_681x432_from_275,3664_to_2509,5082I bought The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars awhile back. It finally worked its way to the top of my “to read” pile. I wish I had read it sooner because I really liked it.

The main story involves the identification of a dismembered corpse. Once the body is identified as William Guldensuppe, which leads to two suspects, Augusta Knack, Guldensuppe’s lover, and Martin Thorn, Knack’s lover. However, it is much harder for the police to figure out which of the two suspects committed the murder and whether the other was a willing participant or a dupe.

While the pursuit of the murderer makes an interesting story in itself, the secondary story of how the newspapers played up the story to the point of actually becoming part of the story is just as interesting. Reporters planted evidence, interrogated witnesses, and enlisted their readers in the search for missing body parts.

This was the age of “yellow journalism” with the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer competing against each other to be number one.

The story flowed like a bestselling mystery and kept me interested throughout. I kept bouncing back and forth over which of the two suspects committed the murder.

Collins also does a great job of setting the scene. He puts you in the period with colorful descriptions of life in the city.

I found after reading the book that I was searching the Internet looking for the newspapers and books mentioned in the book.

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9780770436209_custom-91ae188bedae87f8b4facaf730d081f9dd842434-s6-c30I remember picking up paperback books when I was a kid that were filled with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoons. I loved them! Those little snippets of information peaked my interest about the world around me and instilled in me a fascination for the odd and unusual. This summer, one of the stops on my family’s Great Smokey Mountains vacation was to visit the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. I had hoped that it might spark curiosity in them as well.

So when I saw, A Curious Man by Neal Thompson, my curiosity kicked in. Why hadn’t someone written about Robert Ripley before? I purchased the book and enjoyed it immensely.

It is the story of Robert Ripley’s journey from struggling newspaper cartoonist to cultural icon. He came from a poor family and was teased for his buckteeth and stutter. It is a true rags to riches story because Ripley also had talent, determination, and a strong work ethic.

A Curious Man also paints a picture of a talented man whose passion for travel and oddities gave way to a life of excess and then obsession.

Ripley conquered newspapers, books, radio, television, the speaking circuit and museum circuit. Even with the help of the staff that he eventually had, I am still amazed that he could do as much as he did and still travel for months at a time.

Along the way, readers get a good picture of life during an interesting time of American history—the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, and WWII. They watch the rise and beginning decline of the newspaper industry.

I found the book easy to read and enjoy. I also liked the Ripley-style callouts of interesting factoids throughout the book that Thompson called “Believe It.”

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that it continued too long for me after Ripley’s death. The battling over the Ripley empire after his death held little interest for me.

A Curious Man made me start looking around for those old paperbacks again so that I could read more about the wonder of the world.

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Secret-Life-Houdini-Making-Americas-First-Superhero-William-Kalush-Larry-Sloman

I didn’t know much about Harry Houdini before reading The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. I remember seeing an old TV movie about the escape artist, but I really didn’t remember much about it. I also liked the fact that William Kalush, one of the authors, was a magician himself.

He and co-author Larry Sloman do a wonderful job of bringing Houdini to life on the pages of the book. They explore all aspects of his life from his childhood to his rise to fame to work debunking spiritualists. It also gives non-magicians like me a unique peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made.

I have to give Sloman and Kalush credit. They have written an exciting biography. Although Houdini led an interesting life, they still could have written a boring book. I am reading another biography now about an exciting man and yet, I find this particular book boring. So they deserve credit for making a larger-than-life character very alive.

Though Houdini made a career manipulating people, he was actually a very nice person who mentored other magicians. He was a strong family man. He also wore a lot of hats in his life: magician, escape artist, husband, son, brother, spy, actor and debunker of spiritualists. You get an excellent perspective of all these roles in the book.

So do yourself a favor. Read an exciting, true book about one of the most-interesting people you will ever get a chance to know.

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I admit that Lost in Shangri-La caught by attention because of Shangri-La in the title. That is what Camp David used to be called and I live near there.  However, once I read that cover copy that it was a survival story and rescue mission I was intrigued.

Near the end of WWII, a plane took off from a U.S. Army camp in New Guinea. It carried two dozen people and was supposed to be flying on sightseeing trip and giving the soldiers and WACs aboard a little rest and relaxation. That was until the plane crashed in the jungle high in the mountains.

Five people survived initially, though two of them died within a day. The remaining three survivors had various injuries, but they managed a three-day hike with nothing to eat but Charms candy. (This fact probably sticks with me the most from the book.)

Some of the tribes in the jungle were known to be cannibalistic, but the survivors were lucky enough to meet a tribe that had never seen white people but they were friendly. The two groups couldn’t communicate, but were friendly and got along.

A rescue plane found the survivors after a few days. It couldn’t land, but it was able to help two medics parachute into the area. The medics hiked to the survivors and began giving them needed medical attention. A few days later another group of paratroopers landed in the area to offer help and protection if necessary.

With troops now on the ground, the trick was to find a way to get them back to the camp. Planes couldn’t land, helicopters couldn’t operate at that altitude and it was a 150-mile hazardous march with wounded personnel back to camp. Their solution was a daring rescue that mission that I won’t spoil.

I enjoyed the book. It was well written and it told an interesting story as a story. Though it went off on tangents to tell the background of the characters in the story, they weren’t overly long or uninteresting so I didn’t mind them at all.

I would definely recommend this.

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