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1. Books of Interest



'Rommel?' 'Gunner Who?': A Confrontation in the Desert'Rommel?' 'Gunner Who?': A Confrontation in the Desert by Spike Milligan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


These memoirs of his World War 2 service by Spike Milligan, the great British comedian who was one of the founders of the truly iconic Goon Show, are indeed hilarious -- but they are also moving, painful, angry, and most of all, authentic (the soldiers language is authentic, too). This is why, in this case, I do recommend getting the audiobook read by Milligan himself. His wonderful voice illuminates his own words better than any reader could.
Spike, looking incredibly young, L, and friend in North Africa
Volume one details Spike's joining up, undergoing training with a group of similarly inexperienced (though full of -- dare I say it? -- pluck) young men, and their eventual embarcation for North Africa. In this volume, the second of three, they finally see combat. Milligan not only gives us his much younger self, alert, intelligent, sensitive, quite innocent, and an incurable smart-aleck, but many of the young men he served with, their long-suffering sergeant, and officers, loved or despised. His descriptions of North Africa, which could hardly have been more different from the London suburb where he grew up, are precise and evoctive. The death and destruction of war became real to these soldiers in the desert; some of them never returned. On the other hand, Milligan met his future partner in anarchic comedy, Harry Secombe, there, as well.
Milligan was a wonderful writer, and these memoirs are probably the clearest (and certainly least censored!) depiction of what it was really like for ordinary soldiers. I really can't praise these books too highly.



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Captain BloodCaptain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sabatini's pirate classic is a marvellous story, lacking only Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland to make it just as enjoyable as the equally classic movie.
There is rather more action in the book, and rather less romance. Since the book covers rather more territory, and is, as always with Sabatini, incredibly well-researched, the depiction of pirate life is more detailed, more explicit, and more violent than you would expect in a popular book written in 1922. Blood's adventures are fueled by killing and theft; it's true that he was wrongly accused and wrongly sentenced to an iniquitous punishment -- slavery. But the fury of Blood and his crew, and their thirst for revenge, goes too far, and eventually he realizes it.
Here, the Irish doctor turned pirate comes to hate his life of depredation, although he is good at it. He is not naturally a criminal and the death and destruction he rains on his enemies, which is shown in detail, eventually sickens him. At that point, his struggle is to escape the position he has attained amongst the pirates and return to something resembling a normal life.
Sabatini is a very engaging writer, very dedicated to historical accuracy, but with a truly sweeping imagination. I don't think there is another book like this in any decade.



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Rubber Soul (Dust Bin Bob #1)Rubber Soul by Greg Kihn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I enjoyed this very much. I have to say that as a mystery it's pretty lax -- there is a murder, but it basically has nothing to do with the story as a whole and the solution doesn't matter particularly. Neither the victim nor the killer is an important character. So if readers are looking for a puzzle-type detective story with clues and suspects, they will not find that here.
It is most enjoyable, however, as a tour of the Beatles origins, with the Fab Four themselves, as well as John's Aunt Mimi and Brian Epstein as major characters. Greg Kihn's main character, a second hand goods dealer nicknamed Dustbin Bob, who starts out by obtaining and supplying the teenaged John Lennon with rare American rock and blues records, becomes a valued friend of the band, traveling with them to Hamburg, on tours in Europe, and eventually to America. Dustbin Bob is present when they buy their instruments, get their new haircuts from Astrid, and perform for the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
In fact, every time anything goes wrong in the band's career, Dustbin Bob seems to be there to save the day, leading up to a pretty thrilling denoument where he rescues them from an asassination attempt in Japan (by this time they were receiving threats).
This is a fun read, very well-researched, and full of honest affection for the four Beatles, and giving pretty good context for their early career for those who are not familiar with it.



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Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler by Nolan Porterfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Still the best, most complete and informative biography of the great singer who is often called the "father of country music." Rodgers was far more important than that -- his love of mountain follk songs, blues, and jazz, as well as his natural sophistication, led him to meld these forms into a new and deeply American popular form.
Additionally his life was in itself inspiring -- he knew he was likely to die young of tuberculosis before he began his professional career, in fact the diagnosis freed him to take a chance on auditioning for the RCA Victor company in North Carolina in 1927. Among these first recordings was "Sleep Baby Sleep" and "Blue Yodel Number 1" which eventually sold millions of copies.
Nolan Porterfield, as the title incicates, covers Rodgers' career and his place in the popular culture of his times.

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 The Young Errol: Flynn Before HollywoodThe Young Errol: Flynn Before Hollywood by John Hammond Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is an absolutely invaluable investigation of Errol Flynn's pre-Hollywood years, by an author who was an experienced historian of Australia and Tasmania. Happily, it was written in time for the author to actually interview some of the people who knew Flynn and could give him firsthand descriptions of his adventures.
As a movie star, Flynn's early life was obscured by myth; his actual background was basically too complicated to explain to moviegoers of the 1930's, most of whom didm't even know Tasmania (Flynn's birthplace) existed. Warner Brothers let people think he was Irish and left it at that. But in fact Errol Flynn had deep family roots in Australia and Tasmania, and his father was an important scientist and scholar.
With throrough resesarch, Moore was able to trace Errol's adventurous progress around the Australian gold fields, his brief stint as a prize-fighter, his travels deep into the wilds of New Guinea (where he learned to speak Pidgin), his season as a manager on a tobacco plantation (where he was on horseback 12 hours a day), his experience as a sea-captain -- all between the ages of 16, when he left school for good, and 22, when he decided to end his wandering and make something of himself! He also confirms the fact that Flynn contracted malaria during this time, and probably tuberculosis, which sowed the seeds of his later serious health problems and early death.
I personally can recall seeing David Niven, who was a great friend of Flynn's and shared beachside dwelling with him in the mid-thirties, saying that when Flynn told stories of those days his friends basically didn't believe him. But in later years he had showed some of the souvenirs Flynn had given him of his time in New Guinea to an expert, they were all completely authentic.
Errol Flynn was an amazing character; the more you know anout him the more astonishing his brief life (he died at 50), packed almost to overflowing with incident, becomes. He was at once intelligent and capricious, cultured and crude, a man of refinement and a roughhouser. Mr Moore reveals a few more pieces of the puzzle, fascinating for anyone interested in the man who became one of the greatest movie stars of Hollywood's golden era.



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Bing CrosbyBing Crosby by Gary Giddens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Gary Giddens must be one of the best musical biographers ever. His biography of Louis Armstrong, perhaps the most influential musician of the 20th century, remains the definitive work and set an extremely high standard for factual accuracy, personal understanding, and historical and social context. He is able to meet that standard with this biography of Bing Crosby, another of the most influential musical performers in history, who was, not coincidentally, a close friend and admirer of Armstrong.
Though remembered today as a rather avuncular, if not grandfatherly, middle-of-the-road figure, Crosby's roots were firmly set in jazz. He and his singing partners formed a hot trio, the Rhythm Boys, who were good enough to be hired by the great bandleader and impresario Paul Whiteman. In Whiteman's employ Crosby met and became friends with the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, and the Rhythm boys cut several sides with Bix and select other band members. Giddens covers these years and recordings in illuminating detail.
Though a fan of Armstrong's (as every jazz fan and musician was) Crosby seems not to have met him until about 1930, when they were both playing in the Hollywood area. They struck up a firm friendship rhat lasted the rest of their lives. This was tremendously important as Crosby hit it big, first becoming a teen heartthrob, then establishing a successful movie career, and then -- forgotten now but very important then -- becoming the genial host of an extremely popular radio show broadcast every Sunday for decades. From this platform he introduced African-American musicians to the vast radio audience, treating them as respected equals.
This volume covers Crosby's life up to 1940, and includes a filmography and discography. It is very well written, humorous and compassionate, and basically a joy to read.





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