Reviewed by Jeanne
The premise of this book is that some people—and some things, like dragons or disco—did not receive their due upon their demise. Mo Rocca sets out to rectify this in his podcasts, and now in this very entertaining and interesting book.
Since I hadn’t listened to any of the podcasts, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the Nevermore Book Club members kept saying how much they enjoyed the book so I decided to give it a try. It certainly lived up to its reviews, at least for me.
These aren’t in-depth scholarly type reports, but Rocca does impart a lot of information in a fun way. The book is divided up into chapters such as “Death of an American Story: Chang and Eng Bunker” and is followed by briefer sketches of similar subjects. Chang and Eng, as some may know, were the conjoined twins from Thailand (then Siam) who were the original Siamese twins. They were exhibited as oddities in the 19th century before taking control of their own destinies. They married sisters and settled in North Carolina, where their many descendants meet today. This fascinating story is followed by short notices of other sideshow attractions, such as Victor the Wild Boy of Aveyron and Lavinia Warren, a little person whose wedding to another little person, Charles Stratton aka General Tom Thumb, was a lavish social event—planned by P.T. Barnum, how could it not have been?
Even when Rocca profiles famous people, such as Audrey Hepburn or Sammy Davis, Jr., he looks for the aspects of their lives that he felt were overlooked. Hepburn was a child of war, surviving life in The Netherlands under the Nazis, and that experience strongly influenced the rest of her life. Being a movie star was seemed to be a side interest, not her reason for being.
The ones I enjoyed most, I think, were the ones about which I knew very little. Oh, I was around when disco was big, but I never thought about what happened to it. One day it was all over the radio, the next someone would shudder at a mention of the BeeGees. While I was definitely NOT around when the Roman emperor Hadrian built his wall, I had a vague idea about it but not its real significance or the man behind it.
Most of all, I like the way Rocca handles all these topics. Sure, he has some humorous things to say, but he’s not tearing these things down. He has compassion and appreciation for his subjects. When he talks about the Lawrence Welk Show, he’s telling us about a boy from North Dakota who loved the accordion and who was both totally uncool and beloved. Rocca reminisces about watching the show with his grandmother and wondering about the attraction, which in turn made me think about seeing the show as a child.
I listened to the audio version of this book and enjoyed it immensely. Rocca reads it himself, so I feel I have a good idea of what the podcast might be like. However, as a rule I prefer to read the books and I think I might well dip into this one, just to reinforce some of the stories. I definitely want to read the chapter about Moses Fleetwood, an African American baseball player who played in the big leagues before Jackie Robinson; the one about Thomas Paine, who helped start the American Revolution only to end up pretty much forgotten by Americans; and Bessie Coleman, a woman of color who had to go to France to become an aviatrix.