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Queen City Reading

A cornucopia of Cinci-centric books hits the market

By Steven Rosen · April 29th, 2014 · Lit

It’s not so unusual when local authors write books about this region — there’s a burgeoning market for it, actually, in Cincinnati and elsewhere. 

A perfect example is Phil Nuxhall’s new Stories in the Grove (Orange Frazer Press), a follow-up to his Beauty in the Grove: Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum. In his new book, the Spring Grove historian tells stories behind those who are buried in the renowned cemetery — famous and otherwise. (For instance, the body of George Reeves — the television Superman who committed suicide in 1959 — was briefly held at Spring Grove while burial plans were finalized.)

But it is more unusual when Cincinnati factors into a book about national affairs and history, or a historical novel. Or when a Cincinnati native or resident (past or present) becomes the subject of a biography or memoir meant for a widespread audience. 

In that regard, for the last half-year or so, we’ve been on a roll. Last fall Jeff Guinn published what has come to be considered the definitive biography of our ignoble native son Charles Manson, the mass-murdering cult leader of the late 1960s. While Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster) obviously has much more to consider than Manson’s early years in Cincinnati, Guinn works hard to clear up mysteries regarding his birth at (since-renamed) General Hospital on Nov. 12, 1934.

His mother, Kathleen Maddox, was a teenager from a morally strict family in Ashland, Ky. But she had developed a taste for the wild life of Ironton, a gritty industrial town just across the Ohio River, and got pregnant by one Colonel Scott, who was 23. Maddox married another older man, William Manson, whom she may also have met in Ironton. At the time of Charles’ birth, they were living in Cincinnati — but she was too young to settle down here and the marriage didn’t last long.

One of Cincinnati’s most famous residents was Martha, the last passenger pigeon, whose death 100 years ago at the zoo is being observed this year locally and internationally. And in her honor, Cincinnati Zoo opened a Passenger Pigeon Memorial in 1974. 

The larger implications of Martha’s life and death and the passenger pigeon’s disappearance, as well as her emergence as a “spokespigeon” for environmentalism, are explored in Joel Greenberg’s recent A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury).

Before President Richard Nixon could famously visit China in 1972, creating an earthquake-sized fissure in Cold War hostilities and giving John Adams material for a fine modern opera, the U.S.

Table Tennis Team visited in 1971. It had been in Japan when the surprise invitation came from the Communist country that had until then been vehemently opposed to all things American. The invite and subsequent trip surprised and fascinated the world. 

In the new Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World (Scribner), Nicholas Griffin recounts that thrilling adventure. One of the American players was a University of Cincinnati student, 19-year-old John Tannehill.

The book has too much to cover to devote great space to Tannehill, but it shows how he — perhaps impressionable — was at first so taken with Chairman Mao that he taped a silkscreen portrait of the leader above his bed. But he also got so sick from China’s food he wound up in a hospital.

An unusual memoir with a Cincinnati angle is the new Everything That Remains (Asymmetrical Press) by two Dayton natives, Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, calling themselves The Minimalists. They left career jobs with Cincinnati Bell to live in Montana and write about the pleasures and challenges of seeking a less materialist lifestyle. And they have developed a national following for their work.

Paralleling the resurgence of interest in Cincinnati’s defunct King Records have been recent biographies of its artists, like James Brown and Little Willie John. Now comes the multi-titled The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson: Music and Civil Rights by Dean Alger (University of North Texas Press).

Hank Thompson was long established as a groundbreaking Blues and Jazz guitarist when he released, past the age of 50, the ballad “Tomorrow Night” for King in 1947. With its gentle guitar work and vocals, it became a No. 1 R&B hit and a Pop success, too. It not only helped launch King, but the song influenced other musicians — B.B. King, Elvis, Bob Dylan — who would go on to shape modern Blues and Rock & Roll.

There are two books so far this year about the Big Red Machine. Pete Rose: An American Dilemma (Sports Illustrated), by Kostya Kennedy, ponders if the aging Rose ever can get Major League Baseball to forgive his betting. And there is the just-published Big Red: Baseball, Fatherhood and My Life in the Big Red Machine by Ken Griffey Sr. (Triumph Books).

Turning to a historical novel, Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival (Dutton) recreates how Kate Chase Sprague — daughter of President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, the influential Cincinnatian Salmon P. Chase — wanted to be a powerful socialite in the Washington, D.C. of her time.

And speaking of Washington D.C. power, Cincinnati’s William Howard Taft — who served as the 27th president from 1909 to 1913, long has been regarded as a mediocrity in that office. He’s also become part of American folklore as the overweight stumblebum who once got stuck in the White House bathtub. 

But in last fall’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster), Doris Kearns Goodwin found him vastly underrated as a leader; he quietly championed progressive legislation. And she found no proof he ever did get stuck in a bathtub, though he had a tub made for him. 

So wouldn’t you know it, now there is a new children’s book that “restores” Taft’s reputation as a guy who couldn’t get out of the tub. President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett, with illustrations by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press), “follows President William Howard Taft as he tries, with the help of his wife and Cabinet, to extract himself from the bath,” according to a press release.

Alas, Taft is again stuck in the doghouse — or, rather, bathtub — of public opinion.

Upcoming CINCINNATI BOOK events taking place at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (2692 Madison Road, Rookwood) include Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus at 7 p.m. Friday; Phil Nuxhall at 7 p.m. May 8; and Ken Griffey Sr. at 7 p.m. May 15. More: josephbeth.com.

Dean Alger, author of the Lonnie Johnson book, will be at Cincinnati's downtown library at noon Friday and at Booksellers on Fountain Square at 7 p.m. May 15. Mac Barnett, author of President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, will be at Cincinnati's downtown library at 11 a.m. on May 17 and at Kenton County Library in Covington at 2 p.m. that same day.



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