“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

Wright Brothers
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When you think of the Wright Brothers you think of the guys who flew the first plane and were the key pioneers in the development of flight. You may also get an image in your mind of that particular biplane depicted on the cover of David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

It was on a winter’s day in North Carolina that the two brothers, Orville and Wilbur, successfully completed the first manned flight and created history. But what were the events that led up to this historic moment? David McCullough is a skilled historian when it comes to covering renowned people, and in this relatively short 336-page book — for McCullough — he does an excellent job of covering the Wrights’ story from birth to death.

He begins with the family moving to Dayton and how the brothers, in addition to spending most of their time together, were workaholics who worked Monday to Saturday, and then after church on Sunday, spent their time working around the house. When they were together, no problem could go unsolved with them putting their minds together. One of their early businesses was a bicycle company, with the growing popularity of this mode of transportation, which became extremely successful and profitable with the sale of bikes, as well as repairing.

As their obsession with flight grew and developed, they would spend summers in Kittyhawk, working on their planes, subsidized by the profits from their bicycle business, which they would run during the rest of the year. Their sister, Katharine, soon joined the team and became an inseparable member until the later years of their lives, traveling with them around the world and helping with the administrative side of the business.

McCullough does a fantastic job of pulling from multiple primary sources to shape the story of this unique family, with diary entries, letters, articles and numerous photos. He doesn’t just tell the story of flight, but shows the full lives of the Wrights; how they interacted with each other and lived their daily lives. McCullough makes the Wrights feel like real people, making their achievements all the more incredible. The key point the author makes repeatedly is that the Wright brothers were the ultimate American entrepreneurs, with no training or experience, but simply taught themselves, using a process of trial and error, until they made a contraption that could lift off from the ground and fly through the air for an extended amount of time, making the crucial foundation for flight that has led to the magnificent jet engines crossing the skies today.

Originally written on July 10, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Wright Brothers from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir” by Mike Rutherford (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015)

Living Years

Perhaps the most exciting thing about The Living Years, other than the kickass cover, is the subtitle: “the first Genesis memoir,” which hopefully is more than an advertising ploy, but a foreshadowing of future biographies to come. The book is only 250 odd pages long, which is kind of an ideal length for a music biography, as Rutherford doesn’t spend too long waffling on about old stories that just loose the reader.

The Living Years is a biography of the founding member and eventual lead guitarist of Genesis, Mike Rutherford, but it is also his introspection into his father’s life and career, which he didn’t really know about until his father passed away. Hence, the title – if you know the Mike + the Mechanics song – is perfectly fitting.

Rutherford begins with his birth and upbringing and then his meeting friendships with some teen musicians at Charterhouse. He then takes the reader in a complete overview career of Genesis, touching on each album, and paying attention to each band member leaving and what effect it had on both the band and himself. Throughout the book he includes short paragraphs from his father’s journal looking at where Rutherford’s and his father’s life and career crossed over in a way.

The Living Years is a great read. Rutherford has an enjoyable easy-going voice that immediately engrosses you. The chapters are nice and short and the story moves along at a good clip, not giving the reader a chance to get bored. But Mike also has plenty of stories and anecdotes to tell and doesn’t hold back when it comes to commentary on “drugs and rock’n’roll.”  Rutherford has no reservations, telling it as it is, in this fascinating look at one of the biggest rock acts in the history of music.

Originally written on March 23, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Get in Trouble from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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“Round About the Earth” by Joyce E. Chaplin (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Round About the Earth

There have been many books written about the notorious explorers from history, like Columbus, Magellan, Cook and even Darwin.  There are also now a fair number of people who can make the claim that they have circumnavigated this globe.  Joyce E. Chaplin presents readers with the first full history on those who have traveled around the world and told their story.

Divided into sections, Chaplin presents the series of historical tales starting with Magellan, giving the ups and downs of the journey.  She points out that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that these round-the-world trips actually returned to their starting point with most of the crew still alive.  All the greats make it into this book, such as Francis Drake, William Dampier, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and James Cook.  When sea travel became safer, people like Charles Darwin made the journey, as well as some notable women like Lady Brassey.

With the advent of encompassing railroad travel and exotic cruise ships, round the world journeys became much more achievable and common for a lot of people.  And with the advent of the space race, a new concept of circumnavigating the globe came into play, with an elite few achieving it.  Chaplin has fun exploring these many journeys and why people seem driven to accomplish it.  While her writing can get a little dry and long-winded at points, Round About the Earth still represents an interesting foray into this unique group of travelers.

Originally written on February 11, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Round About the Earth from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Mortality” by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2012)


With the passing of popular author Christopher Hitchens on December 15, 2011, the world lost a powerful voice in the writing world.  It began for Hitchens on June 8, 2010 while on a book tour when he was brought down by extreme pain in his chest and throat.  It was then that he was diagnosed with cancer, and began a rigorous series of treatments and chemo therapy to try to get rid of the cancer and bring him on the road to recovery.

It was a long hard struggle, and while at points Hitchens’ health did seem to improve, ultimately the cancer was too much for him.  Mortality is a collection of his writings and award-winning columns published in Vanity Fair.  They are his notes, thoughts and ideas, philosophies on life and his swiftly approaching mortality.  They are unavoidably moving when one considers who is writing down these words, akin to Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture.

Some might be looking to see if this staunch atheist turned to some divine deity as the days of his life grew short, but there is little in here of that; it is more the words of a man who knows he will soon die, and what that means to him, his wife, his family, his friends.  In the afterword, his wife recounts how he was always the one to have the last word, and now she is doing the job . . . and yet she admits, this isn’t really true, as every time she picks up a book from their great library, in the margins and on the blank pages, she finds Hitchens’ words everywhere.

Originally written on October 23, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Mortality from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948” by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012)

Prague Winter

In this moving true story of Madeleine Albright’s past as a child growing up in Europe, readers get to experience her discoveries of her history through her words, many of them a shock to her, especially with her Jewish heritage.  In a way, Prague Winter is a voyage of discovery and with Albright’s clear and honest writing style, readers are swept away by her prose.

This is the harsh story of a world that now seems unfamiliar to us, when a rising Germany controlled by a vicious dictator saw the fate of human existence in black and white, where only the white were allowed to survive in Hitler’s mind.  As a child growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia, it is a heart-wrenching story in some ways, as Albright tells it with skill and drama, mounting the tension that was very real, as she and her family left their home country for England.  But stories continued to unfold of what was happening back in their native nation.

Albright has clearly done a lot of research for this book, not just on her own family, but on the history and sources of the period, along with many photos from that time, it presents a thorough picture of this part of Europe during World War II and the rise of the Fuhrer.  It is also an insight into the culture of the Czechs, a people who do not bow down lightly and whose patriotism and culture is everything to them.  In some ways, Prague Winter reads like a powerful history book that would make great reading for any high school or college student wanting to learn more about the period; and at the same time it is a poignant biography of these people and of this child that was shaped into the incredible woman that she was to become.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Prague Winter from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)” by Mind Kaling (Crown, 2011)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Mindy Kaling, best known for the portrayal of her character, Kelly Kapoor, on The Office, is also one of the show’s main writers, and a talented comedian.  In her greatly entertaining book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Kaling is not looking to just tell her life story so far, nor is she just relaying a series of hilarious anecdotes, or recommended life lessons; instead she does a perfectly blended combination of all three.

The key to Mindy Kaling is that like other great contemporary female comedians like Tina Fey and Molly Shannon, she doesn’t hold back, but is willing to make herself look ridiculous, knowing it’s incredibly funny.  The book is filled with amusing photos from her life, growing up, as she regales the reader with stories of her life in becoming a comedy writer.  The book is a short, fast read that covers important episodes of Kaling’s life, and her work on The Office, but also features some great life lessons she’s learned along the way that the reader can really appreciate, whether they’re female or male.  The highpoint of the book is her attendance at a photo shoot where she is graced by a trailer full of beautiful dresses all in a size zero, way too small for her.  After accepting this insulting setback and some inner searching, she comes back to the costume designer, demanding that he make a specific dress fit her, even though it’s too small for her.  The dress ended up getting cut and ruined so that it looked fantastic from the front.  It was a harsh lesson for Hollywood that is simply inspiring for readers.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean” by David Abulafia (Oxford, 2011)

Great Sea

The Mediterranean Sea has been there for a very long time.  Over the millennia it has shrunken and grown, given birth to islands, then drowned then, then birthed them once again; at one point it was even a dried-up seabed for a little while until the Atlantic began pouring into it once more, filling it up like a bathtub.  Humanity has also played an important part with the Mediterranean; without it our history would be very different.  From the days of the Neolithic people, to the ancient Egyptians, to the Greek and Roman empires, on through the many events of history taking place along its shores, this Great Sea has always played an important part.  Now David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, brings historians and interested readers the ultimate biography of this unique sea, as seen and used and experienced by the people who lived and still live on its long coastline.

Abulafia divides The Great Sea into five parts, chronologically: 2200 BC – 1000 BC, 1000 BC – AD 600, 600 – 1350, 1350 – 1830, and 1830 – 2010.  Filled with many illustrations and maps, as well as two sets of detailed photographs, this book is certainly not a quick and easy read, but is nevertheless an invaluable one.  A lengthy index helps guide readers to certain periods and places in history and time for the Mediterranean, but what works best is to just start from the beginning and work your way through this heavy tome and learn about just how important this body of water has been for humanity.

Originally written on December 1, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Great Sea from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.