Monday, April 24, 2017

How They Choked - Georgia Bragg

Summary: Over the course of history, famous people made mistakes that were so monumental they could never escape them, no matter how brilliant their successes! Ferdinand Magellan is credited as the first man to sail around the world . . . but he only actually made it halfway. His terrible treatment of everyone he met cut his life journey short. Queen Isabella of Spain is remembered for financing Columbus’s expeditions—and for creating the Spanish Inquisition. J. Bruce Ismay commissioned the unsinkable marvel of the sea, the Titanic—and then jumped the line of women and children to escape death on a lifeboat. Readers will be fascinated well past the final curtain and will empathize with the flawed humanity of these achievers. 

Famous successful “failures” include:
Marco Polo • Queen Isabella of Spain • King Montezuma II • Anne Boleyn • Ferdinand Magellan • Isaac Newton • Benedict Arnold • George Armstrong Custer • Vincent Van Gogh • Susan B. Anthony • Thomas Alva Edison • J. Bruce Ismay • Amelia M. Earhart • Joseph Jefferson Jackson (“Shoeless Joe”) (Summary and image from

Review: If you remember a few years ago, we really enjoyed How They Croaked over here, a slightly irreverent, humorous collection of deaths of famous people. While How They Choked is a similar format, written in the same short biographical chapter, I found that the overall tone was much different. It felt overly snarky, more than anxious to exploit and mock any and every mistake a handful of heroes from history may have ever made. Are some of these characters deserving of at least one of their mistakes being explored? I'd argue all of them are. However, that's not what this book accomplishes.

I think mistakes are awesome. I don't like making them, but how else do we innovate, learn, study, and progress than by making mistakes? I'm a natural optimist, and believe that there's nothing wrong with exploring mistakes, especially if we look toward the outcome. How did these people grow from their mistakes? How did they change the world? Why do we remember them? How do I not make the same ones? When I grabbed this book (I needed a quick read, and I wanted to screen it for my kids' reading leisure), that's what I was expecting.

That's not what I got. Instead of any modicum of positivity, these bios are ridiculously pessimistic. The theme of "choking" runs throughout, refusing to acknowledge any and all successes that came from their mistakes, instead, painting each of the subjects as complete and utter dunderheads incapable of any rational decision or thought,  and worse, individuals that just stumbled into the "luck" of being remembered for their "wins". Don't get me wrong, some of these subjects are possibly deserving of such treatment (I'm looking at you, Benedict Arnold.). But mocking Susan B. Anthony as never having accomplished anything? Nope. Can't get behind that.

Rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader: This is a middle grade level book. Nothing is terribly graphic, but discrimination and death happens.

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