Books show prodigies’ paths to prominence

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Dinah Rokach

We are introducing a new bimonthly books column by freelance writer Dinah Rokach of Silver Spring, Md. She will highlight recent books of interest, most of which are available in local libraries.

There is no companion like a good book, and these recent titles are worth your time. They enlighten and entertain, impart knowledge and reveal new insights. Books that keep our attention focused and our minds engaged are to be treasured.

June grads will soon realize that learning is a lifelong endeavor. But choosing your own material makes reading a truly joyful and life-enhancing experience. Share your favorite books with family and friends. They will thank you in return.

These books give readers an in-depth look at three notable figures of the 20th century.

Hero of the Empire tells the story of the young Winston Churchill and his escape from a Pretoria, South Africa, POW camp. Churchill, a 25-year-old journalist, was captured while covering the second war between Great Britain and the Boer states in 1899.

This son of an illustrious father who had fallen from grace, raised with the advantages of wealth and status, proved his mettle under trying circumstances.

He emerged from the shadows of a famous and controversial father to become his own man. Churchill attained the pinnacle of power that his father had found beyond reach. Lord Randolph failed in his ambition of becoming Prime Minister.

While we know Winston Churchill will overcome his predicament to live a long life, the author keeps us enthralled with the harrowing nature of his incarceration and escape. It’s a true hero’s tale, foreshadowing his steadfastness and stubborn convictions — qualities Churchill would employ on the world’s stage decades later. This is a mystery and a historical biography that sheds light on a lesser known but vital part of his life.

Hero of the Empire: the Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard, 400 pages, Doubleday hardcover, Sept. 2016.

Another book that concentrates on the early years of the famous is the well-researched and highly readable Four of the Three Musketeers.

Robert Bader follows the Marx Brothers’ saga to stardom. The book focuses on their childhood, early career in show business, and years of toil and travel in vaudeville.

In so doing, Bader lays to rest many misconceptions, and dispels the multiplicity of myths that surround these comics’ early years. The true story is even more entertaining than the fictional accounts — some of which were created by the Hollywood dream factories to embellish the truth, while others were merely the result of false memories.

The book brings early twentieth century America to life in fascinating detail: her immigrant communities, small towns, railroad hubs and rural backwaters. Read about the unscrupulous agents and ambitious charlatans who populated the entertainment industry. Get to know the talented comics who later reached stardom in the movies, radio, and early TV.

Follow the riveting narrative as technical changes made movies — first silent shorts, later full-length talkies — the basis of modern show business. The itinerant entertainers, who traveled the circuits from town to town across the United States and Canada, disappeared.

The depiction of each of the brothers is well delineated. The Marx Brothers become less of an entity than an association of highly talented individuals each in his own right, with his own personality and character strengths and weaknesses.

Even Gummo and Zeppo emerge in the telling. You’ll marvel at the perseverance of their mother who served as their agent and chief motivator, and learn about the lucky breaks that they exploited as well as the ups and downs along their path to stardom.

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage by Robert S. Bader, 544 pages, Northwestern University Press hardcover, Oct. 2016.

Some artists achieve fame at a young age only to plateau. Moscow Nights tells the life story of Van Cliburn, winner at age 23 of the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition held in Moscow in 1958.

Interspersed with the history of the Cold War between the two postwar superpowers, this tale of ambition, great talent, and the individual’s impact on the world stage is a great read.

The profound impact of Van Cliburn in the Soviet Union is news to many, and fascinating to ponder. While the Marx Brothers were forced to react to anti-German sentiment in the United States during World War I by changing their act, Van Cliburn’s career was impacted as well by world events. In his case, it was the fear of Communists in our midst.

Both stories show that art at either end of the cultural spectrum is greatly influenced by contemporary politics and world events.

Van Cliburn may not have won the Cold War for our side — or even thawed relationships between the antagonistic heads of state, or been a major player on the diplomatic and military stage. But he was a young American representing the best of what a free society could produce who warmed the hearts of the Soviet public.

Van Cliburn died in 2013, in his late 70s, never having written his memoirs.

Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, 464 pages, Harper hardcover, Sept. 2016.