K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist
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K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist

by Peter Carlson
     
 

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Khrushchev’s 1959 trip across America was one of the strangest exercises in international diplomacy ever conducted. Khrushchev told jokes, threw tantrums, sparked a riot in a San Francisco supermarket, wowed the coeds in a home economics class in Iowa, and ogled Shirley MacLaine as she filmed a dance scene in Can-Can. He befriended and offended a cast

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Overview

Khrushchev’s 1959 trip across America was one of the strangest exercises in international diplomacy ever conducted. Khrushchev told jokes, threw tantrums, sparked a riot in a San Francisco supermarket, wowed the coeds in a home economics class in Iowa, and ogled Shirley MacLaine as she filmed a dance scene in Can-Can. He befriended and offended a cast of characters including Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe.

K Blows Top is a work of history that reads like a Vonnegut novel. This cantankerous communist’s road trip took place against the backdrop of the fifties in America, with the shadow of the hydrogen bomb hanging over his visit like the Sword of Damocles. As Khrushchev kept reminding people, he was a hot-tempered man who possessed the power to incinerate America.

Editorial Reviews

Jacob Heilbrunn
Carlson, a former feature writer for The Washington Post, confesses to being obsessed with Khrushchev's peregrinations ever since first reading old newspaper clips about them several decades ago as a rewrite man at People magazine. Since then, Carlson seems to have sought and discovered every piece of arcana associated with the Soviet leader's American sojourn. A deft and amusing writer, Carlson does a marvelous job of recounting it.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Although Punch magazine famously commented on the humor of Nikita Khrushchev's desire to visit Disneyland during his 1959 trip to America, Carlson a former writer for the Washington Post, can still mine the tour with hilarious results, due in equal parts to Khrushchev's outsized provocateur personality and the bizarre and thoroughly American reaction to his visit. Numerous secondary players provide comic support: then vice president Richard Nixon's fixations on mano a mano debates with the quicksilver premier; Boston Brahmin and U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Khrushchev's tour guide, who dutifully filed daily analysis of Khrushchev's public tantrums; popular gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, who in a noteworthy example of bad taste attacked Mrs. Khrushchev's attire. A host of other American icons also make appearances: among them Herbert Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra. Although Carlson's focuses on the comic, there are insights into Khrushchev's personality, many provided by his son Sergei, now a respected professor at Brown University, illuminating the method in Khrushchev's madness. All in all, in Carson's hands the cold war is a surprisingly laughing matter. (June)

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Library Journal

At a time when the Cold War was at its chilliest, an amazing thing happened: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the energetic and unpredictable leader of America's most hated enemy, took a tour across the breadth of America in summer 1959. Followed by a gaggle of press, curious spectators, and nervous government security forces, the sometimes amiable, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes maddening Khrushchev held the limelight for ten days as he sampled American culture and cuisine while extolling the advantages of his Communist homeland. Carlson, who has spent his career at various journalistic posts, including the Washington Post, has crafted an exceedingly entertaining and detailed history of this momentous event. Pouring over hundreds of newspaper clippings as well as the most significant published memoirs and secondary sources, he brings a refreshing liveliness to the episode and the era. For anyone interested in this remarkable moment in the long history of U.S.-Soviet relations, Carlson's book is a treat! For most collections.
—Ed Goedeken

Kirkus Reviews
A high-spirited, often hilarious account of a forgotten moment in Cold War history. It began as something of a dare, as if the last occupant of the White House had invited Saddam Hussein to visit Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon and then debate the superiority of American over Ba'athist culture. In this instance, following the so-called Kitchen Debate in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev set out on a road show to beat the capitalists at their own game, proving that the Soviets knew all about refrigerators, ICBMs and hot dogs. Former Washington Post reporter Carlson writes that Khrushchev's back-and-forth wanderings across the country in 1959 were quite bizarre, drawing many protests but some admiration. Among those in the former camp was Marilyn Monroe, who thought the Russian leader "was fat and ugly and had warts on his face and he growled...Who would want to be a Communist with a president like that?" Walt Disney refused him admission to Disneyland, and the American Dental Association refused to make room for him when he arrived in New York. A less volatile ruler might have brushed such things aside, but Khrushchev, goaded by Richard Nixon, was in a fighting mood, clearly wanting to impress upon the American people the fact that his finger was on the button that could launch thermonuclear doomsday. Carlson writes both vividly and sardonically of Khrushchev's tour, with its mundane and strange moments alike, among the latter a wonderful moment when the San Francisco Beats erected a sign to greet "Big Red" with the words, "Welcome to San Francisco, Noel Coward!" Fortunately, given all the opportunities to tick Khrushchev off beyond repair, Americans behaved themselves. A fast-paced work ofpolitical history, peppered with references to Shirley MacLaine's knickers, Iowa corn, Dwight Eisenhower's frown, Nina Khrushchev's sidelong glances at Frank Sinatra and all the other makings of mutually assured destruction. Agent: Scott Mendel/Mendel Media Group
From the Publisher

Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History and Baker Institute Fellow at Rice University
"What a joy it was to read Peter Carlson's K Blows Top. With vivid detail, crisp language, subtle wit, and admirable new research, Carlson recounts Khrushchev's notorious bungling around America in 1959. A truly fine piece of writing and Cold War scholarship."

Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You for Smoking and Supreme Courtship
“Peter Carlson's K Blows Top is an utterly hilarious and un-putdown-able story about one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War -- Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the U.S. Someone absolutely has to make this into a movie. I insist!”

The Daily Beast, from Christopher Buckley, author of Thank you for Smoking and Little Green Men
“I can’t remember when I’ve had more fun with a book…simply hilarious.”

Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens.
“Any work of history whose chapter titles include "It Killed Milton Berle and It Can Kill You Too" and "Chihuahuas For Khrushchev" deserves to be read. Like the mid-century journalists who chronicled this Strangelovian chapter of the Cold War, Peter Carlson writes with wit, energy, clarity, and delightful skepticism. This book seems to have been a joy to write; it is certainly a joy to read.”

Library Journal, 3/1: STARRED review
“For anyone interested in this remarkable moment in the long history of U.S.-Soviet relations, Carlson's book is a treat!”

Daniel Schorr, Senior News Analyst, National Public Radio
“This book recreates in vivid detail one of the most astonishing figures in our recent history. The Communist leader’s storming of America can be enjoyed by everyone, but especially those with memories of that singular episode in the winding down of the Cold War.”

Booklist, starred review 4/15
“The book is consistently informative and funny, but there are episodes that are strangely surreal… a fine example of popular history at its most engaging—anecdotal but informative and written with great feeling for the comedic side of current events.”

Kirkus, 4/15
“A high-spirited, often hilarious account of a forgotten moment in Cold War history. A fast-paced work of political history, peppered with references to Shirley MacLaine’s knickers, Iowa corn, Dwight Eisenhower’s frown, Nina Khrushchev’s sidelong glances at Frank Sinatra and all the other makings of mutually assured destruction.”

Publishers Weekly, 3/31
“Hilarious…In Carlson’s hands the cold war is a surprisingly laughing matter.”

The Onion A.V. Club
“Carlson delivers his bizarre travelogue in the most deadpan manner possible, as if to counteract the largely hysterical news reports at the time, which tracked K’s every move with the ardor of paparazzi chasing a bare-headed Britney.”

The Boston Globe
“The linked sketches of Khrushy's boozy, mercurial meanderings through New York, Hollywood, and the Iowa State Fair are jaw-dropping in an era of stage-managed diplomacy. Well beyond travelogue, the book is also a portrait of a more naive, optimistic nation in the heat of the nuclear age.”

PARADE
In K Blows Top, Peter Carlson delivers a laugh-out-loud history lesson about one of the most dangerous periods of the 20th century.”

Washington Post
“Carlson seems to have sought and discovered every piece of arcana associated with the Soviet leader's American sojourn. A deft and amusing writer, Carlson does a marvelous job of recounting it.”

Washington Post’s Express
Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist may be the most entertaining historical account you'll ever read.”

Boston Phoenix
“Fast-paced, delightfully sardonic, and thoroughly enjoyable... It's a revealing portrait of a treacherous decade when the media—especially nascent television, whose news departments seldom questioned the views of the government that controlled their broadcast licenses—were almost as innocent as they were influential.”

BookPage
“Carlson’s account is extremely well researched and includes interviews with a number of participants, most notably Khrushchev’s son, Sergei. Many of the accounts and memos he quotes are from State Department historical documents. His book is enlivened by many direct quotes from Khrushchev and others. Anyone interested in cultural exchange, international diplomacy and fine writing should enjoy this unique book.”

Financial Times
K Blows Top by Peter Carlson is a hilarious, accomplished account of this epic journey of ‘a stranger in a strange land’ as he puts it, one of the most important and, inadvertently, one of the funniest state visits of all time.”

London Review of Books
K Blows Top, a non-fiction account of Khrushchev’s trip to America in 1959, could be the most entertaining book of the year, but it is also, in its blood, a novel, a novel-in-secret, with index and pictures and History as a character.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781586488468
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
07/06/2010
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
460,902
Product dimensions:
8.28(w) x 5.68(h) x 0.94(d)

Meet the Author

Peter Carlson is a former feature writer and columnist for The Washington Post, where he wrote the column “The Magazine Reader.” The author of Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, and a co-author—with Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton, among others—of The Gospel According to ESPN, he lives in Rockville, MD.

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