Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.
Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.
The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.
Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.
After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.
I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.
It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.
Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.
Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.
Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.
Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.
There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.
The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.
Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.
Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.
This book is highly recommended.
*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.
“It’s the admirals, sir, playing with us like this is their own big-assed bathtub and we’re just toys.”
Jeff Shaara has written some of the best war stories ever published, and he’s done so for almost 25 years. I have read every last one of them. When I was invited to read and review his new novel about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, I was delighted, but also slightly apprehensive, because even after all these years, the subject remains an incendiary one; I needn’t have worried. This may be Shaara’s best book, and that’s saying a lot.
I’ll share a brief note about my own biases going in. My father was among the last men called to serve during World War II; he never left the U.S., however, where he was tasked with training new recruits to the still-new U.S. Air Force. But I grew up hearing about Japanese atrocities, and many of the bizarre stereotypes and misconceptions based on pseudoscience were told to me as fact. When as an adult I announced that I was about to marry a Japanese citizen, I sounded the waters with my family to see if there was resistance. I was told that my parents “still remember Pearl Harbor.” Meanwhile, my husband’s father also served during World War II—in the Japanese army. The topic was never raised by his parents around me, or at all as far as I know; but I asked my spouse a few questions to help me understand the Japanese perspective about this horrific conflict, and then I understood exactly how erroneous most of what I’d been raised to believe actually was.
So I was primed to read this book, and also a little afraid of what I might find. My internal map of Pearl Harbor was studded with emotional landmines, and at the book’s conclusion, none of them had been tripped.
Shaara tells this story primarily through the eyes of three people: Cordell Hull, U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese architect of the invasion; and Tommy Biggs, a 19-year-old naval recruit from an impoverished Caucasian family in rural Florida.
Shaara faithfully incorporates a character from the rank and file in every story; he does this even if there is nobody on record that he can report on, and so often, he is forced to create a fictional character based on experiences and characteristics from several people. When I saw no such disclaimer in any of his notes, I grew curious and wrote and asked him whether this is the case with Biggs. He replied that this time there is a Tommy Biggs (though the name is not the same), but that he did add the experiences of others in order to flesh him out. So this time, each of the three chief characters is based on an historical figure.
I learned a great deal. Though it’s well known that this attack profoundly crippled the U.S. Navy, sinking or badly damaging most of the fleet, I had never considered it from the Japanese perspective. Looked at in that way, it was not only audacious, it was immaculately planned and wildly successful. I also had never considered what a blunder it was on the part of the U.S. military to leave its equipment, ships, planes, and more so unguarded. In the fallout after the attack, we learn that the Navy considered security to be the job of the U.S. Army and vice-versa. What a colossal bungle.
Japan had emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, and its leadership was suffused with overwhelming confidence. Japanese racial superiority would lead to Japanese dominance throughout the China, Indochina, and across all of Asia, they claimed, because they were meant to dominate their portion of the globe. Japanese leaders were convinced that the U.S. would not seek retribution following an attack on its soil because American isolationist sentiment was so strong. They genuinely hoped that this attack would result in an end of the U.S. embargo that crippled Japan, and which existed in order to halt Japanese expansion and force Japan to withdraw from its alliance with the Axis powers. Americans, the Japanese brass told one another, were too big, too slow, too lazy to retaliate. There were voices of dissent, however:
“For any of you who believe the Americans are not worthy of a fight, that they do not have the stomach for blood, perhaps you are familiar with the American Civil War? In the 1860s, they divided and fought each other in the bloodiest war in their history. They did not require any enemy to inspire them. They fought each other. Are you familiar with football?”
Meanwhile the U.S. military, press and popular culture treated the Japanese as a bad joke. One myth dressed up as science suggested that Japan would never be able to build an air force because of an inherent defect in the inner ear of all Japanese. It was physically impossible for them to become pilots! The condescension was rife, everywhere one turned. Hollywood depicted the Japanese as ridiculous, rodent-like creatures with minds that didn’t function properly. The Chicago Tribune stated that for Japan to attack the U.S. was “a military impossibility.” Japanese were said to be too myopic to be effective against a military target. And it goes on.
There’s all sorts of blame to spread around. Nobody in Washington, D.C. had told the top brass at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short, about the project named Magic, which intercepted and broke Japanese code. They had no idea that Japan was rattling its sabers to such a degree. And these two men appear to have been lazy, bureaucratic fools that ignored what little intelligence came their way. For example, shortly before the attack, the man on watch sees a Japanese sub in the water. Kimmel immediately assumes that the guard has seen a whale, and he goes back to bed.
There are three aspects of this novel that keep the pages turning for me. The first, of course, is my interest in military history. Shaara’s research is meticulous. The book is historical fiction at its best, which is when the contours of the story, even fairly detailed aspects of it, are correct, but the fictional genre is chosen so that dialogue and inner monologue can be added. Second is Shaara’s perceptive nature, and it’s this that permits him to choose the best details to include and cut what is inessential so that pacing never flags. And finally, his capacity to develop a character so that we feel we know him is matchless; in particular I bond to poor Tommy Biggs, a guy that can’t catch a break, until he can.
Nothing I can say will serve as well as what Shaara says himself. Get this book, even if you have to pony up full cover price. This is hands down the best fictional representation of Pearl Harbor on sale today. Believe it.
“If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”
Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.
I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.
The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.
Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.
Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”
Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.
There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.
Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.
4 stars plus. Donald Miller’s treatment of Vicksburg is one of the best I’ve seen to date; it’s clear, easy to read, well documented, and in parts, vastly entertaining. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
The siege and battle of Vicksburg was the single most significant event in the American Civil War. When the Union emerged victorious, it seized control of key arteries of commerce, food, and military supplies by capturing access and use of the Mississippi River as well as an important railroad that ran east to west. It liberated vast numbers of slaves, and it dealt a savage blow to the morale of diehard Southerners who believed the city and its fort unassailable. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and it made communication between the two halves slow and difficult. It also sealed President Lincoln’s election and provided him with a second term he might otherwise not have gained. I knew all of these things before I began reading Miller’s work, but I found a tremendous number of details I didn’t know about, and more importantly, I gained a much solider sense of context.
Many prominent works on Vicksburg are also Grant biographies, and that usually suits me fine, because Grant is one of my greatest heroes. However, those that read about Vicksburg solely within that framework lose out on the progress made—and sometimes lost again—by the Union Navy and others. Though I had read James McPherson’s work on the Union Navy, there is a lot more detail provided here by Miller. The rivers that surrounded Vicksburg are confusing as heck, and this played a big role in lengthening the fight, but at the same time, it can also confuse readers. It certainly did me. For example, when those traveling on rivers go “above” a certain point, what does that mean? I always assumed it meant north, but sometimes it doesn’t. I had never heard or read the term “Brown water navy,” (or if I did, I had thoroughly forgotten it), and this is a key aspect of the story. For the first time I have a solid grasp of the route used by the Union navy and army.
Readers should know that Miller is fond of including gore. I don’t know whether this is because college students are easily bored, and the consideration of Grant calmly conveying orders while spattered in brain matter is just more attention-getting than the same information without the gore, or whether Miller feels compelled to use these details to drive home the horror that heroes were forced to look beyond in order to be effective, but there it is, and so if you are inclined to take a book with you on your lunch break, you may want a different one then.
One of the aspects I appreciate most is the emphasis Miller places on the role of slaves during this critical time. If the waters were inscrutable, the land was little better in places, with thick, tropical foliage, snakes, leaches and other hazards. Those that lived nearby had an incalculable advantage, but local whites used this knowledge to confuse and obfuscate troops they considered to be enemies. Slaves, on the other hand, understood how important a Union victory would be, and they provided information that would have taken a lot longer to obtain without them. This is material that other writers often mention briefly but treat as a side issue. Miller goes into specifics, gives concrete examples, and shares the respect that Grant gained for his newly emancipated spies, guides, and soldiers.
The chapter titled “The Entering Wedge” is where good prose and information become solid gold. During this section of the book and the chapter after it, I did a lot of rereading for pleasure. There are excellent quotes throughout the book, and the author wisely focuses on those that are little seen in other books, providing a freshness and you-are-there quality at times that I haven’t seen for a long time.
At one point, during a passage discussing the caves that housed soldiers as well as local families affected by shelling, I realized that these must surely be part of the national park dedicated to this event, and I searched the web for images of them; sadly, because of the very soft earth in and around Vicksburg, (most likely the same soft earth that enabled the river to continuously change course,) those caves are all gone, washed away by hard rain. There’s a photo of a modern version based on the information available, but that’s not the same thing. Rats.
I nearly gave this book five stars, but there’s a surprisingly disturbing part toward the end that left me deflated and scratching my head. There are pages and more pages devoted to ugly rumors that seem to begin and end with Cadwallader. Although the author repeatedly reminds us that these statements are “unsubstantiated” and “controversial,” he nevertheless devotes a whole lot of time and space to them, and what’s more they are near the end, where the reader is most likely to recall them. Overall, he seems harder on Grant than most are, but up to this point he was fair, weighing his weaknesses while acknowledging his strengths. Why he would do a hatchet job on this iconic hero in closing is a mystery to me. Then the very end of the book is given to a Confederate.
Nevertheless, this is a strong work for those that know the basics and want the details. I don’t recommend it to those new to the American Civil War; if you are just getting your feet wet, read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, or explore the excellent historical fiction of Michael and Jeff Shaara, Shelby Foote, and E.L. Doctorow. But for those that are well-versed and in search of new information, I highly recommend this book.
I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great.
The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart
while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in
the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the
feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It
didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks
Landmark for the review copy.
The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.
I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily
fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately
plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a
woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is
the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much
farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual
indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards
would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother
David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she
herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this
is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and
go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably
not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic
toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the
runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal.
Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would
be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s,
North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves
would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period
suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become
friends and neighbors on equal footing.
I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling
with laughter at its naiveté.
To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another
woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting
in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly
makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.
I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow,
apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by
them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside
and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald
guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I
was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an
obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read
before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above
prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At
the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the
denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the
Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to
do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely
have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will
do fine work in the future.
This memorable novel is my introduction to Tea Obreht, and I
read it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House. The combination
of word smithery and whimsy creates the purest literary magic, and I recommend
it to anyone that has a high vocabulary level and stamina. It is for sale now.
The tale takes place just after the American Civil War, and
the narrative is divided between two characters, Lurie and Nora. Lurie begins
his life in Arkansas; he is orphaned early and the man that takes him in is a
grave robber that uses Lurie and other boys to assist him in his nightly plundering.
Lurie grows up hard, fast, and mean; he wishes that he did not see and feel the
dead, but he does, and most of all he senses their cravings. I am immediately drawn by his second person
narrative as he relates his memories to someone named Burke. You don’t see many
writers use the second person, and I am curious as to who Burke is. When I find
out, I am even more fascinated.
Nora is one of the early (Caucasian) Western settlers, and
here Obreht uses the third person omniscient. Nora is unlike any Western protagonist
I have ever read, and it is delightful to see the way this author turns
stereotypes and caricatures squarely upside down. Nora has her hands full,
trying to care for the aged, wheelchair bound Gramma; fighting a political
battle in the press that is run by her husband and sons, none of whom she has
seen lately; and carrying on a running dialogue with the ghost of her daughter
Evelyn, who died in infancy. To add insult to injury she is saddled with Josie,
a relative Emmett insisted they must take in. Nora is carrying a heavy emotional
load, but the slow revelation of the secrets that weigh her down and the way
that these impact the decisions she makes and the way she solves problems is
completely convincing. Whereas Lurie’s
narrative is mostly about setting, Nora’s is about character. Both are rendered
I initially rated this novel 4.5 stars because of a few
small areas where historical revisionism has crept in, but ultimately it is too
fine a work to deny all five stars. I am reluctant to say more because the
surprises start early, so to relate details that occur even twenty percent of
the way in feels like a disservice both to the reader and the writer.
One feature that is present throughout both of the
narratives is thirst, and it’s related so well that I found myself downing
extra water in sympathy and thanking my lucky stars that I live in Seattle
rather than somewhere dusty and drought-stricken. In fact, there are places in
Nora’s narrative where she is busy with other tasks or discussions of an urgent
nature and I find myself telling Nora to just go ahead and ask the person she’s
talking to for a sip of water. Nora won’t do it because she is proud and
self-reliant, and the fact that I am already talking to the character instead
of the author tells you how convincing the story is.
The reader is also advised that it’s a violent, gritty tale,
particularly in the beginning but in other places also, and it’s loaded with
triggers. To tell it otherwise would be to deny history, but if you are a mealtime
reader or avoiding harsh prose for other reasons, it’s worth knowing. But I
also think that the whimsy is all the sweeter for it.
Perhaps one of every ten novels I read becomes that book,
the one that I can’t stop talking about. My spouse understands that to pass
through a room when I am reading it is to guarantee he will be hijacked, at
least momentarily, because I am either going to paraphrase an interesting tidbit or
read a particularly arresting passage out loud. This works well for me, though,
because I find myself with more uninterrupted reading time. Inland is that sort of book. Highly recommended.
I love good military history, and so when I saw this title I
requested and received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It’s
for sale now, but I can’t recommend it to you.
One of the first things I do when I read a new author in
this genre is to check notes and sources.
A first rate military historian will have multiple sources for each fact
cited, and a reasonably good one will have a variety of sources, primary
sources being most desirable.
Fenelon doesn’t do this. Much of his information hangs on a single source, and often these are not well integrated. This is the first time I have seen military history published by a major house, that uses Wikipedia as a source. All of the history teachers I know send their students back to do a rewrite if they hinge their citations on Wiki, and if teenagers aren’t allowed to do it, I cannot think why Scribner permitted it.
What drew me to the book is the paratroopers. There seems to
be a spate of these coming out right now, and I find it fascinating subject
material. There’s also a trend, of which this book is also an example, of
embracing the brave German troops against whom American forces fought, and not
unnecessarily, either. I could get behind this trend more easily were it more
universal, but somehow U.S. historians are quick to recognize the shared
humanity of former enemies that are Caucasian, and others, not so much. If I
could see one, just ONE WWII history that recounts kind of brave actions on the
part of the Japanese during this conflict, I would be a good deal less cranky.
Be that as it may, this book is inadequately researched and
inadequately documented. It’s not professionally rendered, so if you want to
read it, do so critically and evaluate as you read. Get it free or cheaply; don’t
pay full price.
The Spanish-American War sparked the earliest fire of U.S.
imperialism, and the eccentric rich man that pushed it forward, Theodore Roosevelt,
was at its center. Risen provides a contemporary view of this badly managed
chapter in American history, dispelling longstanding myths and examining the
long term effect of the conflict on the U.S. military. My thanks go to Net
Galley and Scribner for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this
honest review. This book is for sale now.
Roosevelt was challenged with a number of health problems as
a youngster, but instead of embracing his sedentary, privileged existence, he
embarked on a series of physically demanding adventures in order to strengthen
his constitution and affirm his masculinity.
When Cuban nationalists sought independence from Spain,
Teddy began campaigning for American intervention. Men of his generation was
had not known the destruction of lives and property that touched every part of
this nation during the American Civil War, and like most young people, they
were unwilling to listen to their elders. Roosevelt believed that war was a
splendid thing, and that in facing death, men were elevated to a higher level.
He joined his voice to those in the press advocating military aid to Cuba, and
after tapping every powerful connection his wealthy family could access, he was
His own unit—all volunteers—were
dubbed the “Rough Riders.” Most had no military training of any kind; the
mighty Union Army had been all but disbanded once the nation was reunited.
Though they were promoted as cowboys, the rugged individuals of the Wild West,
a goodly number hailed from Wall Street and Harvard. In addition to being able
to fund their own wartime excursion, they were noteworthy in their riding
There was no San Juan Hill. There was a series of them.
The American invasion of Cuba cast a spotlight on its
unpreparedness. Transporting troops, beasts and equipment across the Atlantic
was a debacle of the worst order. There weren’t even close to enough seaworthy
vessels, and because of this, most of the so-called cowboys fought on foot the
entire time; horses and mules were stuck back in Tampa waiting to sail. There
wasn’t enough food, potable water, or appropriate clothing for most of the men;
the wealthiest among them fared best, but there were many occasions when there
wasn’t any food to be bought at any price. There had been no reconnaissance and
so they went in blind; the heat and disease killed more Americans than the
Spaniards did. Vultures and immense land crabs that measured 2 feet across and
traveled by the thousands made short work of the dead when not buried
immediately. American losses were nearly triple those of the Spanish, and when
the war ended there were no hospitals or sanitation ready to receive the
legions of sick and wounded when they returned from the Caribbean.
Roosevelt used the occasion to point to the need for a
standing army and U.S. readiness, and ultimately this was his one useful
contribution. In other regards, the man was an ass hat. His bald-faced racism,
though not unusual at the time, went over badly with the Cuban freedom fighters
that were supposed to benefit from their presence. He crowed to his friends
about how much he enjoyed shooting an enemy soldier from just a few feet away “like
a jackrabbit,” and called his 45 days of combat the ultimate hunting trip. Mark
Twain hated the guy, and it’s not hard to see why.
Risen has an engaging writing style, and he uses lots of
well-chosen quotations. His research is excellent as are his sources. I would
have liked to see more of a breakdown along the lines of social class and other
demographics, but this war did not yield a rich archival treasury like the one
that came from the Civil War, so this may not be possible.
All told, this history is a find. Right now it seems that
every second historian on the planet is writing about World War II, whereas
this cringeworthy but significant chapter of American history has been largely
left by the wayside. I highly recommend