Book review: Ty Cobb by Charles Leerhsen

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Ty Cobb has a horrible reputation as a racist, mean, and disreputable human being. The author’s premise in this biography is that much of the mythology surrounding Ty Cobb is erroneous, based on a biography by an author who took a dislike to Cobb and created events out of whole cloth. The result is an interesting, contrarian take on a baseball player of mythological proportions.
While the Ty Cobb in this book isn’t the Southern white racist that he is often portrayed as being, he isn’t a nice person either (or, rather, he was accommodating to those who didn’t exacerbate his insecurities but otherwise unpleasant). But he was a tremendously gifted baseball player and transformed the business of baseball as well. In fact, the book does well in describing the state of baseball in the early 20th century and, in some ways, those are the most interesting sections of the book. The author tends to be a bit defensive in tone and clearly not objective in the sections about Ty Cobb specifically.
For baseball fans, this is an interesting history of the sport. For those who are interested in just how maligned Ty Cobb was and how mythology takes over facts, the book is also worth reading. The author isn’t a particularly strong writer as writers go (but I read this book after reading Rick Atkinson’s Revolutionary War book, so perhaps that was an unfair bar to live up to), but it’s an interesting narrative and history.



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Book review: The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A friend gave this book to my husband, but I borrowed it (temporarily, of course) because it looked so interesting. There are generally two types of history books–a narrative history or an agenda-driven history. This is a narrative history.
The second thing I will say about this book is that it is dense. (Which should go without saying since it is 800 pages (including index and bibliography) and covers only 3 years of the Revolutionary War.) It is the first in a planned trilogy.
Finally, I will say if this is a period in history that interests you, this book is a must read. The author uses a plethora of primary sources, and he is skilled at describing both battles–in detail including the location of trees and the weather–and the overall strategy. People get short shrift in this tome, but if you want to know more about the major players of either the American or British side, there are plenty of biographies available. But if what you want is a timeline of the events of the Revolutionary War, how they unfolded, and why they unfolded the way they did, this is definitely the book for you.
Now I’m off to read something light and frothy…but I highly recommend this book!




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Book review: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson

Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the the leader of a intelligence gathering group, the Alliance, in France during World War II that was instrumental in providing the Allies with key intelligence, including plans of Germany’s rocket program and coastal defenses in preparation for D-Day. The author explains the relative anonymity of her accomplishments as representative of the social mores and expectations of women, especially in France (although certainly true of the time as a whole).
The account of Marie-Madeleine’s life is fascinating–her victories and success are impressive and her failures heartbreaking. The toll of lives lost working for the Alliance network was high (the Nazis executed dozens of Alliance members when it became clear they were going to lose the war), and time and again, networks had to be rebuilt after the Nazis swept in and destroyed them.
This book is a fascinating glimpse into the difference one woman can make, against all odds, against the prejudices of her time, and against a brutal enemy that took no quarter. I highly recommend it!



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Book review: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


“A Woman of No Importance” is about the life of Virginia Hall, who despite being a woman, an American, and disabled (a prosthetic leg), managed to outwit and outlast the Nazis and organize, arm, and train pockets of the Resistance throughout France during the German occupation. (Oh, and fled over the Pyrenees when the Nazis finally figured out who she was.) She then returned to France to aid the Resistance to prepare for the Allied invasion in Normandy. Upon her return back to the United States, she joined up with the OSS and then the CIA, only to encounter deep-seated discrimination due to her gender.
Virginia Hall was a woman of immense force of personality, charm, and sense of purpose. She survived unimaginable hardships and loss and built a life for herself on her own terms. This is a well-written biography about a fascinating woman and her importance in the Allied victory in World War II.



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Book review: Code Girls: The Untold Story of American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my (achievable) New Year’s resolutions is to read more non-fiction. “Code Girls” was a wonderful place to start. The author paints a detailed and knowledgeable picture of the role women played in World War II breaking both the Japanese and German codes. Despite their obvious intelligence and substantive contributions to the war effort, these women often faced discrimination during their service. And, yet, the vast majority of them persevered, wanting to do their part to support the war effort. Their patriotism and their contributions in breaking the codes of the enemy are an untold and underappreciated part of World War II history.
I found the descriptions of the code-breaking effort and what it entailed fascinating. But even more fascinating was reading about the backgrounds of the various women. Certainly, there were women from elite colleges such as Barnard and Smith that contributed. But many of the most brilliant code-breakers came from less exalted schools or were from rural areas or were schoolteachers or just looking for adventure. And while discrimination certainly existed, there were also senior (male) officers who were supportive and gave credit where credit was due.
Another factor that struck me was what happened to many of the women once the war was over. A few of them stayed in what ultimately became the NSA, but most of the women left government service and started families. They rarely talked about their wartime activities and while many found their lives fulfilling, the excitement and the feeling of making a difference was something that was missing from their subsequent lives.
I highly recommend this book as an excellent resource of a little-known part of the United States war effort.



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Book review: The Battle of Midway by Craig Symonds

The Battle of MidwayThe Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike many other books on this battle, which tend to attribute the American victory in this pivotal battle to luck or good fortune, this author’s premise is that the outcome of the Battle of Midway was a direct result of the personalities of the major players and the differences between Japanese and American cultures. The author credits the superiority of American technology, including its code-breaking efforts and the effectiveness of radar, as major factors in the battle. In addition, the author walks through each commander’s personality and preferred battle tactics to explain why certain actions were taken and certain decisions made. He also explains the differences in military culture between the Americans and the Japanese and how they resulted in certain decisions.
I was fascinated by the book, which covers one of my favorite battles of World War II. The author writes well, the book is eminently readable, and even though we know how the battle turns out, the element of suspense is well used throughout the book.
In addition, the author is not afraid to take stands on certain issues. While he thinks the efforts of the individual code-breakers and intelligence officials were not given enough credit, he also thinks that some historians give the overall code-breaking effort too much credit for turning the tide of the battle, while at the same time, not giving the strategic and tactical officers present at the battle enough credit. In addition, he is skeptical of the official reports from the commanding officers of the carrier, the Hornet, and has a very plausible explanation as to why the Hornet’s official reports do not reflect what actually happened during the battle.
I look forward to reading the author’s next book and highly recommend this one!

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Book review: George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade

George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American RevolutionGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting book in several ways. First, it’s a fascinating look at a little known part of Revolutionary War history. The Culper Spy Ring was instrumental in helping General George Washington by providing him with vital intelligence about British military movements in New York, including information about Benedict Arnold’s attempted and nearly successful treachery. Second, while most of the ring’s identities have been uncovered, the identity of one member–the only woman in the ring–is still unknown and her fate undetermined. The book makes a somewhat convincing case of her probable fate, but it is all conjecture. Third, the book is written in the fashion of a thriller or mystery rather than a non-fiction history. Chapters end with teasers to encourage you to read the next chapter. I’m convinced that more people would read history if more history books were written this way. (Note: the idiosyncrasies of this book does make it come across as a bit amateurish, but if those idiosyncrasies make it an easy read, I have no issues with it.)
This is a very quick and interesting read on an obscure part of the history of the Revolutionary War and the importance of intelligence-gathering during armed conflict. I would give it 3.5 stars if I could, as I think the book could have used more depth. That being said, I definitely recommend it!

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Book review: The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book really deserves a bifurcated rating. I give the actual story–the history–5 stars. Recovering and preserving the priceless art that the Nazis looted during their march through Europe is a riveting story that deserves far more publicity than it has received. Unfortunately, the book does not do the actual story justice.
While this is a review of the book and not the movie, I have the same critique about both. That is, I find the actual historical events far more interesting than the book (or the movie). The writing is flat, and the characters–some of whom would be extraordinarily interesting, I think–came across dull and boring.
It is with disappointment that I write this because the actual events and discoveries and personalities are and should be compelling and exciting. Unfortunately, the book does not do the Monuments Men and their accomplishments justice. However, the book does throw light on an undeservedly obscure chapter of World War II and, for that, it should be appreciated. (Not to mention that I’m highly appreciative of the casting of George Clooney in the movie!)

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