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Bill McGann "Author of The Story of the Tour de France" (Cherokee Village, AR, USA)
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Melisende of Jerusalem
Melisende of Jerusalem
by Margaret Tranovich
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Melisende the Crusader Queen, 30 May 2012
This review is from: Melisende of Jerusalem (Paperback)
After capturing Jerusalem and slaughtering its inhabitants in a horrifying bloodbath, the soldiers of the first crusade established a thoroughgoing feudal empire. The kingdom of Jerusalem was ruled first by Godfrey of Bouillon (who refused to take the title of king) and then by his brother Baldwin and his descendents.

Melisende was the daughter of Baldwin II and an Armenian princess. Because the couple was without male issue, Melisende was reared as the crown princess, destined to rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The early Crusaders had, at least as far as their Moslem subjects were concerned, appalling health standards, which meant terrible infant mortality which struck male children far harder than female offspring

We know little of Melisende and her reign as Queen of Jerusalem. Author Margaret Tranovich has done a good job fitting together the few pieces of information we do have and then by necessity filling in the gaps with reasonable extrapolations, painting a clear picture of a fascinating person exercising power at a pivotal moment in history. But never does Tranovich put forward her interpretations and conjectures as facts, a common failing of writers who must fill in gaps in the historical record with their judgments.

As in all eras, the politics that drive this narrative are complex and it would be easy to lose the reader in Crusader genealogies and conflicts, but Tranovich gives a clear, concise explanation of the events and forces that brought Melisende to power.

Beyond laying out Melisende's history, the book gives a deft and knowing overview of twelfth century Byzantine, Islamic and Western art, showing how they influenced each other.


Up the Road: Cycling's Modern Era from LeMond to Armstrong
Up the Road: Cycling's Modern Era from LeMond to Armstrong
by Samuel Abt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Up the Road, 17 July 2008
Americans traveling abroad who yearn for a bit of news from home can always turn to the International Herald Tribune. Now and again the reader of the IHT gets lucky and there is a short essay by Samuel Abt on some aspect of bicycle racing. Abt's essays are always interesting and always well written. He has a gift for summing up a situation in a few short words, probably a requirement for a newspaper columnist who is given just a small part of the editorial page.

My favorite Abt bon mot remains this sentence describing the way a supremely fit and somewhat arrogant Laurent Fignon was treating a sub-par Bernard Hinault in the 1984 Tour de France, "If you couldn't kick a man when he was down, when could you kick him?" That was the race in a single sentence.

"Up the Road" is a collection of Abt's essays and each is a pleasure to read. I preferred his book on the 1984 Tour, "Breakaway", where he was able to write at length about the race and display his very substantial knowledge of cycling. But I'll take my Abt where I can get it. This is a fun book and I really recommend it.
- Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"


Uphill Battle: Cycling's Great Climbers
Uphill Battle: Cycling's Great Climbers
by Owen Mulholland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £21.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uphill Battle, Cycling's Great climbers, 17 July 2008
Mountains weren't added to the Tour de France until 1905. Tour boss Henri Desgrange added them only because a staffer incessantly hounded him until, finally worn down, Desgrange capitulated. At first, the mountains in the Tour de France were the more modest ascents of the Vosges and Alps. In 1910 the Tour added the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, giant Pyrenean climbs. A year later came the high Alps.

The addition of hard climbing transformed the Tour. The men who have the ability to bound up the mountains (the Italians have a special word for these riders: Scattista) have fascinated cycle race fans since that race in 1905. Sometimes they are specialists who can only climb, but do not have the complete set of cycling skills to win the Tour (Rene Vietto, Jose Manuel Fuente and Andy Hampsten are in this category). Others have so much power, are such magnificent athletes that they can climb with the specialists and also time-trial and ride cobbles with equal ease. This group would include Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

Owen Mulholland takes them all on (including episodes from both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France) and tells their stories well. What makes this book a pleasure is that Owen writes as if he were talking to you. His enthusiasm comes across every page. He is a man mad about bikes and bike racing and I love everything he has ever written about the sport.

There are 39 chapters, each about a particular climber and each is a gem.
-Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"


The Debacle: (1870-71) (Classics)
The Debacle: (1870-71) (Classics)
by Émile Zola
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Debacle, 17 July 2008
In the late 1860s Prussia, led by Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, engaged the French government headed by Napoleon III in heated negotiations over the throne of Spain and the sovereignty of the Low Countries. The dispute grew as France looked for a fight.

France declared war in 1870 but was ill prepared to fight the ensuing Franco-Prussian War. Poorly equipped and incompetently led, the French soldiers were badly used. The result, from the French point of view was a catastrophe. At the battle of Sedan the Prussians captured over 100,000 French troops and Napoleon III himself. France was forced to cede Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans. In the immediate aftermath of the war, a left-wing rebellion erupted in Paris. It was suppressed with brutal rigor.

Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, Zola's The Debacle is a historical novel in which the facts of the war are very accurately described, and then well-drawn fictional characters are inserted. The story is told with verve through the eyes of two soldiers. The events of the Franco-Prussian War are extremely complex, yet Zola never lets the reader get lost. The story is engrossing and compelling. This is one of the great books of French literature.

To the reader who comes to this review by way of my history of the Tour de France, this book is related to the Tour rather obliquely. Tour founder Henri Desgrange wrote extensively in the sports newspaper L'Auto, which also owned the Tour de France. Desgrange tried to model his own writing style on Zola's.
-Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"


The Book of the Courtier (Classics)
The Book of the Courtier (Classics)
by Baldesar Castiglione
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Book of the Courtier, 17 July 2008
There really was a Camelot. But it was in Italy, Urbino in northern Italy to be exact, in the 1500s. Perched on top of a couple of hills in the region Le Marche, Urbino was ruled by the Montefeltro family. From 1444 to 1482 Federigo de Montefeltro skillfully steered his tiny domain through the rough storms of Italian Renaissance realpolitik. Federigo was a successful soldier of fortune yet maintained one of the largest libraries in Italy, spoke Latin, read Aristotle, helped orphans and in general earned the love of his people. He built a beautiful fairy-tale palace and had Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca decorate it.

His less fortunate son Guidobaldo inherited this charming and well-run dukedom. Guidobaldo married the cultivated Elisabetta of the Gonzaga family from Mantua. He was an invalid and not made of his father's stern military stuff. A victim of the brilliant military campaigns of Cesare Borgia that so enchanted Machiavelli, Guidobaldo was temporarily deposed. When the Borgias (Cesare and his father Pope Alexander VI) died, the people of Urbino rose up, drove out Borgia's soldiers and cheered Guidobaldo and Elisabetta upon their return.

For the next few years the court of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo was the most beautiful, enlightened, genteel place on earth. They attracted musicians, scholars and artists. Conversation was honed into a fine art. Into this paradise strode our Lancelot, Baldasare Castiglione, a diplomat descended from minor Italian nobility. He loved Elisabetta, but as far as we know the devotion remained platonic

It is because of Castiglione that we believe we have a sense of what the court of Montefeltro was like, or at least how they would have like to have been remembered. His "The Book of the Courtier" (Il Cortigiano) painstakingly analyzes the attributes of a gentleman through conversations (probably highly idealized) of refined visitors to Urbino.

It's a long, slow, but thoroughly enjoyable book. It is a window into the renaissance mind. It does not describe how the Italians of the sixteenth century were, Machiavelli and Cellini are probably more useful there. But it tells how they wanted to be. The book was read and studied by nobility all over Europe.

It's also how I wanted them to be. Urbino is one of my favorite places. It's a crowded student city now. But on a quiet morning when only a few people are about and the sun has made its way over the hills from the Adriatic, I can imagine that I can see the ghosts of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo walking on the cobbled streets outside their beautiful palace. Fussy, snobbish, yet kind and gentle Castiglione and his wonderful book help make that fantasy more real.
-Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"


Penguin Island - Anatole France
Penguin Island - Anatole France
by Anatole France
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.45

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Penguin Island, 17 July 2008
If you like your satire served with brilliant wit with a touch of irony and a side of righteous anger, then Anatole France (the pen name of Jacques Anatole François Thibault) is your writer. You can credit Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature, with the famous maxim: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Penguin Island starts with a fantastic premise. A missionary, half blind, comes across the island of penguins and baptizes them. Up in heaven, confounded with this act, the Lord gives the birds souls and intellect. France then uses his new civilization to satirize almost anything within range of his scathing intellect. The book generally parallels the development of human civilization. The longest chapter, the story of Pyrot and the 80,000 Trusses of Hay is a blistering critique of the French government's frame-up of Alfred Dreyfus. This chapter alone justifies the price of the book.

For those who have come to this review through my Tour de France history or my cycling commentary, it should be noted that the Dreyfus Affair was the proximate cause of the creation of Tour de France.

Anatole France is a genius. I heartily recommend this book.

-Bill McGann, author of The Story of the Tour de France


Orlando Furioso (Oxford World's Classics)
Orlando Furioso (Oxford World's Classics)
by Ludovico Ariosto
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Orlando Furioso, 17 July 2008
In 778 Charlemagne made an incursion over the Pyrenees into Spain. Needing to take his army to the Rhine to meet another challenge, he retreated, leaving a rearguard to protect his army as it withdrew. That rearguard, led by Count Hruodland (later known as Roland) was defeated at Roncesvalles.

This episode gave us the legend of the brave Roland, who died blowing his horn to summon Charlemagne to return and rescue the overwhelmed soldiers. The story grew ever more elaborate with every retelling. In Italy Roland became Orlando. By the 1400s France and Italy nostalgically looked back on a lost world that never existed, the world of chivalry. Roland (or Orlando) figured largely in this literature that grew up about knights, ladies, dragons and magicians.

The Italian poet Matteo Boiardo wrote his contribution to the Roland cycle, Orlando Innamorato (1495). Boiardo died before finishing the planned final third part of his poem.

That brings us to Ludovico Ariosto who set out to finish Boiardo's epic. Ariosto was a superior poet and his Orlando Furioso is a truly major work and an important part of the Western Canon. It is also the most Italian book I have ever read. The mix of magic, history, humor, irony all combine in a way that ends up feeling Italian, yet I can't exactly explain why. Anyone who has a close familiarity with Italian culture will understand what I mean. I can give an example. A brave knight saves the beautiful damsel. She offers herself as a reward. The brave knight then starts unbuckling his armor in order to collect his payment. Finally the lady grows bored with the laborious, time-consuming knightly undressing and wanders off. This irreverent original twist on an old story, done with a sly smile is pure Ariosto and pure Italy.

Ariosto is not only a good poet, he is a great storyteller. Because of this Orlando Furioso becomes a wonderful book in Guido Waldman's prose translation. I have rarely found translations of poetry to be satisfactory. As one man said, you can translate the words, but who can translate the music?

It's a shame this terrific book has slid off the modern reader's radar. The Renaissance was more than pictures and statues. It was a complete rebirth of the western mind. Orlando Furioso is as important a work of art as Botticelli's Primavera or Raphael's School of Athens.

It's a big book. Give yourself some time to enjoy this burly, mirthful work. It's worth it.
-Bill McGann, author of The Story of the Tour de France


The Betrothed (Classics)
The Betrothed (Classics)
by Alessandro Manzoni
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Promessi Sposi, 17 July 2008
I have had friends planning trips to Italy ask me for reading suggestions. "I Promessi Sposi" (The Betrothed) is always at the top of the list. For the reader seeking deeper knowledge of Italy this book serves a couple of purposes.

First of all, like War and Peace, it is an historical novel with well-drawn characters inserted into an accurately described place and time. The novel takes place in Lombardy (the area in northern Italy surrounding Milan) between 1628 and 1631. It describes the story of Renzo and Lucia, and the extraordinary difficulties they encountered getting married. The centerpiece of the tale is the Great Plague of Milan, brought to northern Italy by French and German troops engaged in the 30-Years' War. Manzoni's description of the horrible conditions that descended upon Milan is riveting. I Promessi Sposi gives the reader great insight into the history and culture of post-renaissance Italy. Because the book is so good, one can absorb an enormous amount of history painlessly.

Secondly, because this is truly the greatest Italian novel, all educated Italians are familiar with it. I can promise the reader who travels to Italy that he will surprise those he meets when he displays familiarity with this beloved and extremely Italian work. I remember discussing the book with several Italians while having dinner in a small village near Milan. I mentioned an episode in the book that I said had taken place near Lake Como.
"Lecco!" I was instantly corrected. They all knew the book and my bonehead error was not allowed to pass.

Intellectually a child of the French Enlightenment, Manzoni became a devout catholic and the book reflects his deeply felt religious beliefs. Don't let his didacticism put you off. This is a beautiful book. One hundred years ago it was standard reading even in America, but sadly it is largely ignored here. Get a copy and let Manzoni take you back to another place and time. It's an adventure you will enjoy.
-Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"


I Promessi Sposi (the Betrothed)
I Promessi Sposi (the Betrothed)
by Alessandro Manzoni
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Promessi Sposi, 17 July 2008
I have had friends planning trips to Italy ask me for reading suggestions. "I Promessi Sposi" (The Betrothed) is always at the top of the list. For the reader seeking deeper knowledge of Italy this book serves a couple of purposes.

First of all, like War and Peace, it is an historical novel with well-drawn characters inserted into an accurately described place and time. The novel takes place in Lombardy (the area in northern Italy surrounding Milan) between 1628 and 1631. It describes the story of Renzo and Lucia, and the extraordinary difficulties they encountered getting married. The centerpiece of the tale is the Great Plague of Milan, brought to northern Italy by French and German troops engaged in the 30-Years' War. Manzoni's description of the horrible conditions that descended upon Milan is riveting. I Promessi Sposi gives the reader great insight into the history and culture of post-renaissance Italy. Because the book is so good, one can absorb an enormous amount of history painlessly.

Secondly, because this is truly the greatest Italian novel, all educated Italians are familiar with it. I can promise the reader who travels to Italy that he will surprise those he meets when he displays familiarity with this beloved and extremely Italian work. I remember discussing the book with several Italians while having dinner in a small village near Milan. I mentioned an episode in the book that I said had taken place near Lake Como.
"Lecco!" I was instantly corrected. They all knew the book and my bonehead error was not allowed to pass.

Intellectually a child of the French Enlightenment, Manzoni became a devout catholic and the book reflects his deeply felt religious beliefs. Don't let his didacticism put you off. This is a beautiful book. One hundred years ago it was standard reading even in America, but sadly it is largely ignored here. Get a copy and let Manzoni take you back to another place and time. It's an adventure you will enjoy.
-Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"


Rough Ride
Rough Ride
by Paul Kimmage
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sad Tale that Had to Be Written, 13 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Rough Ride (Paperback)
What's it like to be a wonderfully talented amateur bicycle racer who gets thrown into the meat-grinder of professional cycling? Kimmage answers the question in honest yet depressing detail.

An example: This book explains that the fatigued riders who did not place in the final stage of the Tour wouldn't be tested for dope, so they were free to take amphetamines. Reading "Rough Ride" is a lot like driving by a car crash. You really want to avert your eyes but can't. Kimmage's story of life as a cycling domestique is fascinating.

Kimmage makes it very clear that he is only telling his own personal story and not accusing any other rider in particular. But the practices he exposes clearly indict the entire profession. His revelations of the culture of doping within the peloton brought him withering criticism. He wasn't the first to get in trouble for revealing cycling's nasty underside. Bernard Thévenet almost died of liver failure from overuse of corticoids. When he confessed that doping was the cause of his health problems and that doping was a common practice within the peloton, the 2-time Tour winner suffered terrible opprobrium from the press, his sponsor and his fellow racers.

I believe Kimmage's book is the first (at least in English) to detail at length what life as a professional truly entailed. Since then former professional Erwann Menthéour has also written a memoir about doping in cycling which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been translated. Both he and Kimmage explained that the term for revealing cyclists' doping to the public is called "spitting in the soup". Menthéour's (who was caught using EPO) reply was "People are saying I am spitting in the soup, but it is necessary when it is poison." In the last year the wall of silence regarding doping has come tumbling down and several famous racers have confessed their misdeeds.

Yet Kimmage's book is the seminal tome and writing it was an act of courage.

The book is more than about doping. It details Kimmage's own failure to properly train and prepare for some seasons. He also describes the gut-busting exhaustion that the lesser riders suffer as they work at their limits for their more talented team leaders.

"Rough Ride" is a well-written book about racing in the 1980s but its lessons apply to the present. It is important reading for any cycling fan with an interest in what it takes to produce the spectacle we so enjoy watching.

- Bill McGann, author of The Story of the Tour de France


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