Erik Larson is fast becoming one of my favorite non-fiction authors. Who else could take 2 years from World War II and turn it into compelling reading about Winston Churchill and the war between Britain and Germany? Quoting from diaries and letters by the main protagonists and their families (and others), the author paints a picture of Winston Churchill and his family, Churchill’s friends, allies, colleagues, and enemies, and the efforts of the British government to meet the German threat and cajole FDR and the Americans into joining the war. It’s all fascinating reading–from the London Blitz to the fancy parties given by the upper crust in defiance of the war, to Hitler’s mischaracterization of Britain to attempts by various Germans to defeat Britain/negotiate peace with Britain. It is an amazing series of events to have been crammed into twenty-four months. The one weakness of this book is that because the author chose to focus on a two year period, he needed to include a lengthy epilogue to wind up the various story lines of the various characters. It is necessary and well-written and interesting, but it does somewhat detract from the narrative arc of the book. (If I may be so bold, it’s somewhat like the five endings Peter Jackson put into “The Return of the King.”) It makes for an anti-climactic ending. That being said, if you are interested in history and World War II European theatre history, this is a must read.
Only an author as talented as Erik Larson could seamlessly weave together stories about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer during that same time period and make both suspenseful and compelling. It is such a highly readable book that I had to double-check that it was non-fiction rather than historical fiction. There are connections, not the least being that the vast influx of people into Chicago to work and view the World’s Fair made a few missing young women here and there difficult to trace back to a single killer. The fact that the author makes the World’s Fair (which almost didn’t happen) almost as suspenseful as the serial killer is further testament to his writing skill. His ability to effortlessly weave facts and portrayals of the main players together and combining two disparate plots is uncanny. The book shouldn’t work in its format (alternating chapters of alternating plots) but, somehow, it does, and the result is an excellent and very compelling book. I highly recommend it!
This is a fascinating book about the history of Israeli intelligence and policies of targeted assassinations. The author is an Israeli investigative reporter, and the book is written originally in Hebrew. The translation is excellent, however, and the book is very readable and incredibly interesting. In addition, the author is surprisingly even-handed about the foreign policy, operational, and tactical policies and decisions of the Israeli government and intelligence agencies. He is critical of the blunders made and of the decisions taken, especially in recent events, but he is also realistic about the choices faced by the Israelis. If there is one quote that epitomizes the philosophy of the Israeli intelligence agencies, it is this one: “Let’s admit the truth: most of the Jews in the Holocaust died without fighting. We must never reach that situation again, kneeling, without the ability to fight for our lives.” The title of the book comes from a Babylonian Talmud, “If someone comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.” Read the book.
For those of you who enjoy “Moby Dick” as a tale of obsession, welcome to a real-life version. This book takes you into the world of rare birds, their feathers, and the obsessive world of the Victorian era art of salmon fly-tying. Specifically, the book starts with a lengthy and detailed history of rare birds and their collectors. It then moves into the role of feathers in the salmon fly-tying. And, finally, it discusses the lengths to which salmon fly-tiers will go to obtain feathers from endangered birds for their flies, including stealing from the Tring Museum in Britain, resulting in an incalculable loss to ornithological history. The book is both a history of rare birds and a biography of the twenty year old thief and what may (or may not) have led him to break into the Tring to steal hundreds of specimens. Unfortunately, there are no satisfactory answers–only a peek into the dark underworld of fly-tying and a young man’s obsession.
You have to set your expectations when reading this book. First and foremost, the author is British, so, not surprisingly, Bletchley Park and the contributions by the British codebreakers in the European theatre is what he focuses on. Second, did I mention the author is British? So the extraordinary contributions of the Polish mathematicians and codebreakers to the Bletchley Park effort is limited to 7(!) pages. And, third, I don’t know if you know this, but the author is British, so he explores in detail the differences of British social classes and the effect that it may or may not have had on Bletchley Park’s successes. In all seriousness, this is a well-researched book that uses anecdotes from many Bletchley Park veterans to describe how life was there. There is little discussion on codebreaking techniques (unlike, say, the book “Code Girls”) but, rather, the book mainly covers life at Bletchley Park and some of the squabbles between Bletchley Park and Whitehall. There are some interesting peculiarities beyond what I mention above. For instance, Alan Turing’s death is referred to as a “premature tragedy” throughout the book. It is not until near the end that you discover that the author is unconvinced that he died by suicide. And the author firmly believes that the Turing machine would not have been built if it had not been for the efforts of a brilliant engineer named Tommy Flowers, who is unappreciated for his efforts. Overall, it is an interesting read. The tone is chatty and informal, and the book reads easily. I would have given it 3.5 stars had Goodreads allowed for such a thing. If you’re interested in the period, it’s a nice add to your collection.
The author of this book has a definite viewpoint, which is that William Tecumseh Sherman got a bad rap and was not the savage butcher and scourge of the South that he has been portrayed to be. I don’t generally like biographies with a set agenda, but I was intrigued by the premise of this one. And, in the end, the author is persuasive. Sherman wasn’t a particularly competent line officer, but he was a brilliant strategic and operational officer, who understood the psychological impact that a march deep into the South would have on Confederate morale. The sheer complexity and scale of maintaining his supply lines in his march to the sea (from Vicksburg to Savannah) was quite a logistical and tactical feat, and his grasp of the importance of the mental aspect of war was equally impressive. In addition, he had a prolific writer, and his grasp of the deeper societal issues was well-articulated in his correspondence. It is helpful when reading this book to have a basic understanding of the course of the Civil War, and the maps included in the book, while not always ideally placed, are key to helping to understand the complexities of Sherman’s accomplishments. The author also covers Sherman’s childhood, personal life, and post-Civil War life, but the bulk of the book is devoted, as it should be, to his significant accomplishments during the Civil War. Any fan of the Civil War and anyone who is curious about the the military personalities will enjoy this book.
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.
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!
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!
“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.