Tag Archives: biography

5 Questions for … Ray E. Boomhower

CBR_Logo2Today at Chicago Book Review, we continue our “5 Questions for …” series with our echat with Ray Boomhower, whose work has included biographies of such figures as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, Juliet Strauss, and May Wright Sewall. The Indiana historian recently accepted the top prize in the biography/memoir category from Society of Midland Authors for his book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog. We asked Ray what he’s working on, what he’s been reading lately, and what might be next for him.

boomhowerCBR: What new writing projects are you working on right now?
REB:
I am currently deep into writing a book for Indiana University Press on the World War II writing of Robert L. Sherrod, a war correspondent for Time and Life magazine. What Ernie Pyle did for his reporting for the average GI during the war, Sherrod did for the those who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, who suffered and persevered in the horrific engagements at Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In his writing, Sherrod strove not to present complete stories, leaving that task to historians, but to write what he saw, heard, and felt during a battle, thereby reflecting the “mood of the men in battle” and how they appeared, talked, and fought. Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood observed upon Sherrod’s death in 1994 that as a war correspondent the man from Georgia produced “some of the most vivid accounts of men at war ever produced by an American journalist.”

Sherrod also produced two classic books on his wartime experiences—Tarawa: The Story of a Battle (1944) and On to Westward: War in the Central Pacific (1945). As Sherrod, a former Washington, DC, correspondent for Time, noted, “I can think of nothing less interesting than sitting out the war in Washington. There is too much history being written where men are dying.”

CBR: Who are some of your favorite writers?
REB:
My taste in authors and genres has changed over the years. Like many ex-reporters, I grew up reading the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway, admiring his spare prose. Because I now write mainly biography and nonfiction, my preferred writers are those who also work or have worked in narrative, including John McPhee, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, and William Manchester.

CBR: What are you reading right now?
REB:
Immersed as I am with my Sherrod book, I have little time at the moment to read about anything but what might help with that project, including several books on the history of the war in the Pacific, especially Peter Schrijvers’s incredible The GI War against Japan: American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific During World War II—a must for any historian of the war. For inspiration when I find myself lagging, I have turned recently to Scott Donaldson’s The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, comforting myself that at least I don’t have to contend with the problems he encountered in writing a biography of John Cheever.

CBR: Which books are on your to-read list?
REB:
Books coming my way as part of my Sherrod research include James L. Baughman’s Henry Luce and the Rise of the American News Media and the autobiography of writer and Fortune magazine editor Eric Hodgins. I also look forward to reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life, especially his relationships as the editor of a host of famous authors.

CBR: If you could write one book about any topic—fiction or nonfiction—what would that book be?
REB:
I have taken to heart David McCullough’s tip that biographers should select as their subjects people they are going to enjoy spending time with, as these projects can sometimes take years, or even decades, to complete. With that advice in mind, I gravitate toward people I have a shared experience with, either through an interest I have on a particular subject (World War II, for example) or a profession we might share (journalism). I would love to have the time to do a biography of Richard Rovere, the American political journalist and the writer for so many years of the “Letter from Washington” column for The New Yorker.

underdog boomhowerRay E. Boomhower is senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society’s quarterly popular history magazine, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Along with numerous articles for Traces, The Indiana Magazine of History, Outdoor Indiana, and other history periodicals, Boomhower is the author of several books, including John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog (Indiana University Press, 2015), Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary (Indiana University Press, 2008), and Fighting for Equality: A Life of May Wright Sewall (IHS Press, 2007. In 2010, he was named as the winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in the regional category.

Learn more about author and historian Ray E. Boomhower at http://rayboomhower.blogspot.com/

—Kelli Christiansen

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Decoding Hemingway

CBR_Logo2Influencing Hemingway:
People and Places That Shaped
His Life and Work
by Nancy W. Sindelar

Although it is a matter of debate whether Ernest Hemingway actually said of his hometown that Oak Park was a village of “broad lawns and narrow minds,” it is certain that growing up in the Chicago suburb influenced his life and his writing. This influence, as well as numerous others, is detailed in Nancy Sindelar’s well-researched biography of the award-winning writer, Influencing Hemingway: People and Places That Shaped His Life and Work.

hemingway-cover-200Sindelar, a board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, taught American Literature at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and her students encouraged her to research Hemingway’s school years and how life in Oak Park affected him. From Oak Park to Cuba and places in between, Sindelar studied Hemingway and his life, and, she writes, this book is “a modest attempt to document how Ernest Hemingway’s early years and the people and places Ernest was drawn to in his adult life contributed to his thoughts, actions, and writing.”

And so it goes that Sindelar’s take on Hemingway follows a chronological trajectory from his birth in July 1899 to his death by suicide in July 1961. From his parents, siblings, and uncles to his several wives to his many friends and colleagues, Sindelar chronicles the key people who populated his life. From a childhood spent in Oak Park and Walloon Lake, Michigan, to adult years in Kansas City, Paris, Pamplona, Havana, and Sun Valley, Sindelar traces Hemingway’s travels, showing how various places influenced his life, his perceptions, and his writing. And, from war to bull fights to safaris, Sindelar also examines the events that shaped his life.

As with any human, the people, places, and events that colored Hemingway’s life colored his work. None of us can escape the things around us, and the same is true of Hemingway. In this way, Sindelar’s short biography doesn’t pose a challenging hypothesis: Of course Hemingway was influenced by the people and places around him. But Influencing Hemingway does reveal in detail the myriad ways in which Hemingway learned from and was affected by those influences.

With a mixture of analysis and reportage, the book presents an objective examination of Hemingway’s life and times. Packed with quotes from Hemingway’s letters and writings and observances from those who shared his life, Influencing Hemingway reveals Hemingway’s affinities, aspirations, and anxieties. Several dozen photos illustrate the people and places that colored his life, providing readers with glimpses of the world in which he lived.

Sindelar has done a fine job of documenting the people and places that influenced Hemingway. As such, the book does exactly what it has promised in its title and subtitle. Much of the material in these pages likely will be new to readers, providing a fresh perspective on the life of a famous author about whom so much has been written.

nancy-sindelar

Author Nancy W. Sindelar

Unfortunately, the text doesn’t always feel so fresh. In some ways, it seems as though Sindelar herself has taken a page out of Hemingway’s own style manual, writing with few adjectives and adverbs. As a result, the text feels somewhat humorless and colorless. With its somewhat flat tone, the book reads rather like an academic text, making the material something that may be of interest more to scholars and students than to general readers. (Scholars and students, however, may well be disappointed in the book’s anemic index, which fails to include key figures and places. Martha Gellhorn, for example, one of Hemingway’s wives, is not even listed.)

The book also suffers from repetition as the author reiterates certain facts numerous times. Readers are told again and again that Hemingway’s parents were significant influences on his life, his character, and his writing, and that they were critics of much of his work, which they viewed as not in keeping with his conservative, Christian upbringing. At least twice are readers informed that upon his death, some of Hemingway’s fishermen friends melted down their boat propellers and anchors to create a bronze bust in his memory. Readers also are told several times that, as a young reporter, Hemingway was required to follow the Star Copy Style Sheet at the Kansas City Star, which contained 110 rules that were the best he “ever learned for the business of writing.”

Similarly, readers are told more than a few times that, even at an early age, Hemingway expressed a certain courage and bravery toward life. Early on, readers learn that, in a response to his mother, Hemingway claimed that he was “’fraid a nothing!” Oddly, though, this quote then appears in different formats through the book, including “afraid of nothing” and “’fraid of nothing.” Similar inconsistencies in editing are littered throughout the text.

Stylistic and editorial issues aside, Influencing Hemingway nonetheless provides readers with an interesting take on the life of one of the world’s most famous—and among the most analyzed—writers. Fans of Hemingway will find the book of interest, as will those new to his work or interested in his life in general.

Two-Star Review

May 2014, Rowman & Littlefield
Biography
$35, hardcover, 187 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8108-9291-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the author.
Read more about the book.

“For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning
where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.
He should always try for something that has never been done
or that others have tried and failed.
Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”
—Ernest Hemingway, 1954

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The Daley Life

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First Son:
The Biography of Richard M. Daley

Keith Koeneman

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Published in April 2013 on Richard M. Daley’s seventy-first birthday, First Son chronicles the political life of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor. Accessible and well researched, this well-written look at the Windy City’s oft-loved, oft-controversial mayor is a compelling read.

Although many of the stories may seem familiar to readers who have followed Chicago politics with even the slightest interest, author Keith Koeneman digs deep to reveal telling details about key events during Daley’s tenure, events that shaped both the man and the city. Koeneman, a third-generation Chicagoan who has studied at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University, does well with his first published book, drawing on more than a hundred interviews as well as more than twenty secondary sources to paint a colorful picture of Rich Daley, his powerful father, his brothers, and the politicos who have surrounded him. Although a couple chapters are superfluous and overwrought, readers will find interesting stories that involve many of Chicago’s key players, names that have long held sway here: David Axelrod, Ed Burke, Jane Byrne, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama, Harold Washington, Ed Vrdolyak. The list goes on and on in what is a veritable Who’s Who of Chicago. (One can easily imagine the city’s leaders thumbing first through the index to confirm whether they rated a mention in the book before even reading the prologue.)

Billed as “the biography” of Mayor Daley, the book feels more like a political history of Chicago than a true biography of the life of the man who served five terms as mayor as well as Cook County State’s Attorney and Illinois State Senator. The first few chapters of the book recount Richard J. Daley’s tenure as Chicago’s boss, setting the stage for the political rise of his eldest son. Koeneman also examines the political gamesmanship that marked the post-J. years, recounting the maneuvering that resulted in a string of mayors from the hapless Michael Bilandic to the fiery Jane Byrne to the controversial Harold Washington to the progressive Eugene Sawyer. Koeneman frames just about every political machination in the city’s recent history in light of how each move affected Daley and what it meant for his future.

Koeneman’s biography argues that Richard M. Daley is largely the product of his father, Richard J. Daley. Koeneman repeatedly points to the Daleys’ Bridgeport background, their religious education, and the Chicago political machine as the elements that shaped Rich Daley. Although there is mention of Daley’s rather lackluster performance as a student—whether in elementary school or law school—readers will find little else to reveal Daley’s formative years. This is by and far a political biography: Readers looking for anecdotes of lessons learned on the childhood basketball court or in the family kitchen will be disappointed. Similarly, there is little in the book about Daley’s wife Maggie or the couple’s four children. Personal details are lacking.

Though largely chronological, the book at times feels a bit jumbled at redundant as it hops back and forth to tell or even retell particular stories. Readers, for example, are reminded constantly of the Daleys’ Bridgeport roots. At times the text is bogged down by needless details, such as turn-by-turn walking directions to and from particular places. And, although his treatment of Daley seems largely fair and objective, Koeneman’s obvious disdain for other political players (James “Pate” Philip and Mike Madigan, for example) occasionally shines through.

Readers who are keen on the political rise of Richard M. Daley, particularly in light of the shadow of Richard J. Daley will find this book of interest. Koeneman does a fine job of shining a light on a complex man who left a checkered legacy after twenty-two years as mayor of what he long believed was the greatest city in the world. Readers looking for a more in-depth picture of the man behind the mayor, however, may well find personal details lacking.

Three-Star Review

April 2013, The University of Chicago Press
Biography
$30, hardcover, 400 pages
ISBN-10: 0226449475
ISBN-13: 978-0226449470

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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