The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”

 

Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

Bluff, Bluster, Lies and Spies, by David Perry*

bluffblusterliesThe American Civil War is part of the curriculum I used to teach, and in retirement I still enjoy reading about it. When I saw that Open Road Media had listed this title on Net Galley to be republished digitally this summer, I swooped in and grabbed a copy for myself. I was so eager to read it that I bumped it ahead of some other DRCs I already had, and I really wanted to like it.  Unfortunately, this is a shallow effort and it shows.  Don’t buy it for yourself, and for heaven’s sake don’t advise your students to read it.

It begins gamely enough with a discussion of events in Europe and how the changing contours of that part of the world affected the attitudes of England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Spain. At this point my curiosity was piqued, because I had never read anything about which side of the Civil War the last three of these countries favored.  But if the rest of the text can be believed—and parts of it cannot—the reason we never hear about Russia, Spain, and Prussia with regard to this rebellion is that they decided they had no stake in its outcome. This part of the text could have been dealt with in one sentence rather than owning a share of the introduction and being dragged in again later, but this is not the only bit of obvious filler that burdens this misbegotten book.

I am tantalized initially when Perry brings in a controversy that does interest academics: would Britain have recognized the Confederacy in order to get cotton, or was it busy with other considerations and willing to obtain cotton from colonial holdings in Egypt, India and elsewhere for the duration? This question is discussed, leaves the narrative and is broached again several times, because although the book has chapters, it isn’t organized. The same topics of discussion, and the same quotations that serve as its meager, questionable documentation are dropped into the text again and again. It’s as if Perry doesn’t expect anyone to read it all the way through and is hoping we will drop into the middle of the book somewhere to look up a fact and then leave again without seeing whether he actually knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t.

For example, after citing the same obscure document for pages on end—since I read it digitally, I highlighted “Dispatch 206” seven times before noting that this section, at least, is garbage—he brings up Poland. He talks about Poland and Russia’s attachment to same as a buffer state, but never shows any relationship between Poland and the American Civil War other than that Russia had other greater priorities at this time, which had already been established in an earlier section.  And he misuses the term “Manifest Destiny”. Perry apparently believes this term has equal use to multiple governments in reference to themselves around the world.

He tells us that privateers are outlawed during the Civil War and infers that this, therefore, will surely mean that all the sad pirates will dock their ships and get honest jobs. No more privateers out there now, matey!

He says that Lincoln was a slow thinker, and he refers to American diplomats as ditherers.  He documents none of it.

I read the citation section to see if more joy would be had if I pursued this book past the halfway mark. I read his author bio, which indicates no expertise regarding this conflict, which by now doesn’t surprise me.  Frankly, I don’t understand why this book ever saw the light of day, or why Open Road would republish it.

I would love to say that those with deep pockets should go ahead and order it if they can afford all the books they want, but I can’t even say that. The book is unreliable, disorganized, and badly documented. It contains falsehoods and insults the reader’s intelligence.

Put your plastic away. This is dross.

Point of No Return, by Martha Gellhorn*****

pointofnoreturn.jpgI want to give a shout-out to Open Road Media for the way they value the First Amendment. Every now and then I review something they’ve given me and rate it with one or two stars, and each time I wonder whether my outspoken criticism will get me knocked off their list of auto-approved readers. It’s never happened. It gives me a little extra joy, therefore, when I’m asked to read and review a book that is straight-up excellent, because everyone will know my five star rating is the real deal. Thanks, Open Road…and happy holidays to you, and to my faithful readers, too.

This exceptionally strong World War II story was a New York Times best seller when it was first published in 1948. Open Road Media has brought it back to us digitally, and I read it free in exchange for this honest review. I thank Open Road and Net Galley for inviting me to do so. Martha Gellhorn was at Dachau a week after its liberation, and her experience frames part of the narrative, the fictional tale of Jacob Levy, US soldier in Europe. This excellent war story is available to the public Tuesday, December 20, 2016.

It’s hard to miss the irony: Levy answers the call to duty, but his commanding officer is unhappy to discover that a member of his personal staff, his driver, is Jewish. He’s never had a Jew in his outfit before and doesn’t want one now; still, there’s nothing much he can do about it, so he forges grimly onward.

Levy, on the other hand, has heard stories and eventually sees situations in which nearly nobody gets out of a wildly dangerous situation alive except for his boss. He decides—as soldiers sometimes do—that his commander is lucky, and therefore the closer to that officer a man is, the likelier he is to share in that luck. He serves so faithfully and dependably that his commander eventually changes his mind and decides he likes Levy, without Levy ever learning that he’d been unwanted.

Our story starts when Levy joins the army in the United States, but quickly shifts to Europe. The most poignant scenes are those in Luxembourg, where the shell-shocked troops are astonished to find a semblance of normal life. There are houses that have people in them, food cooking, and glass in the windows. It is here that Jacob meets Kathe, and although there is no common language spoken between them, they fall in love anyway. For the rest of his part of this war, he will hold dear to the notion of a little home in the Smoky Mountains where he and Kathe can raise a family together.

I had sworn off Holocaust stories, telling myself that I already know about it; I no longer have students to whom to impart the information; from now on, I will only read what I want to read. But I appear to have landed on a list of reviewers that read this sort of book, and once I was invited, I decided I could read just one more. And I am so glad that I did.

The reader should know that the Holocaust is nothing more than rumor for 80 percent of the book. We aren’t looking at 300 pages of horror. There are battle scenes that are vivid and raw; Jacob participates in the Battle of the Bulge. People die; nobody can write about World War II accurately without imparting the fear, the grief, and the alienation that its participants and witnesses endured. But most of it is about Jacob as a person, what he thinks and feels. In other words, this is more the story of one soldier’s life than it is military history.

Technically this story isn’t historical fiction, because it wasn’t written 50 years or more after the events it describes. However, it will impact the reader as if it is, because the World War II was a very long time ago. So I recommend this book to those that love first rate historical fiction; that like to read about the European theater of World War II; or that like a good romance.

US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

George Washington’s Secret Spy War: the Making of America’s First Spy Master, by John A. Nagy***-****

georgewashingtonssecretspyNagy does a more than serviceable job in documenting Washington’s intelligence methods. Thank you for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review from Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This title is for sale today.

Washington first learned spy craft when he was fighting for the British Crown during the French and Indian war, a nasty conflict that puts the American Revolution in the shade in terms of lives lost and financial expense.  Later he would take the education he had gained as a member of His Majesty’s forces and use it to lead the American colonists to victory as citizens of an independent nation.

Nagy conscientiously documents his case that it was this knowledge of spy craft that won the Revolution. He cites everything, and he uses primary documents that you and I would never ferret out in order to do so. Students of the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, or the history of American intelligence-gathering should consider this book an indispensible addition to your research material.

In the tradition that continues to this day, Washington found there were only two possible outcomes once a spy was apprehended. The first and most usual thing to do was hang them. Once in awhile one could turn them. And he had absolutely no scruples about torturing them first and hanging them later.

As a popular read, I rate this title three stars, and it’s really not due to any shortcoming of the author’s. He quotes extensively from primary documents such as Washington’s diary, and he didn’t use the same expressions and syntax that are used now, nearly two and a half centuries later. The accepted speech mannerisms for that time are unwieldy to us, and make for some difficult, hyper-literate reading that is not always enjoyable.

But for those that need the information, there are not a lot of places to go, and I think you need this one. As research material this is easily a four star book, and depending upon one’s area of study, it might even be more.

Recommended to researchers and students in this realm.

Friendly Fire, by C.D.B. Bryan****

friendlyfireBryan was a journalist and author during the mid-twentieth century, and Friendly Fire, which originally began as a story for the New Yorker and grew into something more, tells the story of the Mullen family and their response to the death of Michael, a clean-cut young man that answered his draft notice, dutifully served and was killed by friendly fire not long after he was sent to Vietnam. Thanks goes to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This is right up my alley and I found it compelling. It was published digitally May 10, 2016 and is now available for purchase.

Michael Mullen was the favorite son of Iowan farmers Gene and Peg Mullen, working farmers steeped in traditional values and respect for authority, who had never questioned the US involvement in Vietnam. If the government said that US forces were fighting there to contain the spread of communism and keep Americans safe, then it must be so. Michael was the kind of young man that called people “ma’am” and “sir”.  When his effects were delivered to his family following his death, there were no fewer than three rosaries he’d carried on his person. He had expected to return from service, as his father had done from an earlier war, and inherit the family farm. His family was part of the Silent Majority to which governmental authorities referred when defending the role of the USA in Indochina.

In short, they were the last people anyone would have expected to see become anti-war activists.

Michael’s death rocked parents Peg and Gene, and their grief eventually alienated them from the three children left to them. The part of their story that galvanized me was in reading their intelligent, sharp responses during the initial period following their bereavement. For many of us facing the loss of any loved one—and the death of a child is the worst loss of all—ferreting out information about that person’s days, weeks, even months is our last link to them. But Peg and Gene took it to another level when they realized that some of the information they had received was untrue. Peg became an organizational whirlwind, searching for the names and stories of other Iowa boys that had died in that conflict and she realized that the casualties that were being reported to and in the media were incorrect. The responses she received from everyone from US officials to the parish priest were so insensitive, so baldly insulting that she and husband Gene made the war and those near their son when he died into an immense research project, reaching out to newspapers and television news widely. This reviewer grew up during this period and when I read that Peg was on the phone with national newscaster Chet Huntley’s secretary in New York, my jaw dropped!  In this era before satellites gave us phones in our pockets and information available at the touch of a keyboard, they typed letters, made long-distance phone calls, and in time even traveled to Washington D.C. in order to know how and why their son had been killed and who was to blame.

The fifth star here is denied because the beginning of the story, which goes into overmuch detail about the family’s genealogical beginnings and its long history in Iowa soil, is deadly dull. When the book was first published, the video game had not yet been invented and readers had longer attention spans.  Today if a book does not hook a reader from the start, chances are excellent it will be immediately and forever abandoned. Although the point that the Mullen farm had stood for five generations is surely relevant to the story, the author drags this portion of the story out sufficiently to glaze even the eyes of this history teacher, and together with an awkward introduction that appears to substitute for a bibliography or end notes, a lot of readers won’t get to the interesting part, and that’s a crying shame.

Ultimately the Mullens’ cause alienated them from their community, probably because they were so free in dispensing blame to everyone that drew breath. Everyone that had not actively opposed the war was called out at some point. The heat of their rage and grief lacked focus.  In many ways they undid a lot of the good they had done by cursing old friends and neighbors simply because they had never done anything about the war.

The story will interest those that research conspiracies. The Mullens believed more deception was in play than actually was, yet when a person knows he has been lied to about one thing, it is the intelligent thing to do to wonder how much more one was told is also untrue. And so as they relentlessly sought to find one particular officer that might be to blame for the friendly fire that killed their son, I wanted to bang my head on the wall, because it was so much more than that; the conspiracy, we know now, was seated in the Oval Office, jotting more names, possibly their own, onto his enemies’ list. Targeting this soldier or that minor officer was just wrong-headed, but when people are hurt, they lash out, and the Mullens did so exponentially.

The end of the book deals with the author’s own motivation in following the Mullens and their search for the truth so diligently; nevertheless, it seemed strange to find a host of author photos at the end of the book rather than of the Mullen family.

Had the editing of this digital edition been given to me along with permission to do anything I wished, I would have tightened up the beginning, put the author’s notes at the end of the book rather than the start, and deleted the photo section entirely.

Nevertheless, those with an interest in the struggle to end the US war in Vietnam will find this story well worth reading, and to them I recommend this memoir.

Tail Gunner, by RC Rivas****

tailgunnerTail Gunner is the memoir of a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. I was fortunate to receive a copy free in advance from Net Galley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review. It’s both compelling and informative.

Those accustomed to modern air travel may find it hard to imagine flight during this time period. There was no source of heat, and of course it’s far colder in the sky than on the ground.  Our author was a turret gunner, and it turns out that the turret and the nose are the two coldest parts of the plane. He stoically assures us there is no reason to be too cold up there if one dresses properly, and then lays out the multitudinous layers that must have made flyers look like old-fashioned versions of the Michelin man, but with head gear and a parachute. He describes the layers of ice that formed on the metal inside the turret, and how his oxygen mask freezes while it is on his face.

None of this is all that important once one is shot down, however.

My interest in military history is recent; I studied and taught history for a long time, but for most of those years, I preferred to study the causes of war, and so my primary interest was more political and theory-based. Maybe this is why it never occurred to me that the pilot is always the boss inside a military plane regardless of the ranks of various officers. Rivas points out that there really can’t be a discussion when the pilot says to jump; the point is well taken!

This novella-length memoir is recommended to those with an interest in World War II, particularly its aeronautic aspects, and also to academics and researchers, given that this is a primary document.  It was released to the public April 8, so you can buy a copy for yourself.

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith*****

grantWhat, another one? Yes friends, every time I find a noteworthy biography of Grant, it leads me to another. This is not a recent release; I found it on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon. I always swing through the American Civil War shelves of their history section, and I make a pass through the military history area as well. I found this treasure, originally published in 2001 when I was too busy to read much of anything. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer; A New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book; and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. But in choosing a thick, meaty biography such as this one—it weighs in at 781 pages, of which 628 are text, and the rest end-notes and index—I always skip to the back of the book and skim the sources. If a writer quotes other secondary texts at length, I know I can skip the book in my hand and search instead for those the writer has quoted. But Smith quotes primary documents, dusty letters, memos, and military records for which I would have to load my wide self into the car and drive around the country to various libraries in out of the way places. Source material like Smith’s is promising, so I bought a gently used copy for my own collection and brought it on home. And unlike the DRC’s I so frequently read at a feverish pace in order to review them by a particular date, I took my time with this one, knowing that if I only read a few pages each day and then reflected on them before moving on, I would retain more.

Usually the best place to read about a famous person is to read their own account. Grant’s autobiography was, at one time in US history, the second most commonly book owned by ordinary families. He was so deeply loved that many homes held two books: the Bible, and Grant’s memoir. That says a lot. And I did read that memoir quite awhile ago, and it was great. I recommend it. However, there are areas where we need an outside party to discuss things. For one thing, Grant was exceptionally modest. It takes an outsider to tell the full extent of his remarkable achievements, which Grant tended to soft-pedal. Also, alcoholism was not considered a disease during Grant’s lifetime, and his memoir simply makes no note whatsoever of his struggles with it; he doesn’t tell us about his early problems with it, or when he quit, and so he also doesn’t defend himself against later charges by enemies at times when most scholars say he was likely dry as a bone. And finally, of course, Grant was unable to tell us how the nation would respond to his death. So for those with a deep and abiding interest, it’s worth it to read multiple histories in which he is largely figured, as well as multiple biographies.

The fact that I had read a handful of Grant biographies in addition to Grant’s autobiography, yet came away with this volume studded with sticky notes marking new information as well as new insights and perspectives on known information is a good indication that Smith’s biography has met the gold standard.

We start with Grant’s childhood and his early gift for working with even the most difficult horses. Grant was physically quite compact, even by the standards of the day, about five feet five, weighing not more than 120 pounds. In another life, he could have been a jockey, but the purpose his life served gave us so much more. His education at West Point was not part of an initial plan toward a military career; his family could not afford to send him to college, and Grant sought higher education. A connected friend of his father’s got him into West Point, which charges no tuition but requires a period of service after graduation; until war broke out, his plan was to become a professor of mathematics, at which he excelled.

The war with Mexico is where he first saw service, and his job as quartermaster taught him a thing or two about priorities. Although many biographers say that Grant had no head for business, Smith argues that his early misfortunes in business were flukes for which outside causes were really to blame. As quartermaster, Grant succeeded in actually turning a profit for the army by buying flour, baking enough bread with it to feed the army and also sell to the local Mexican populace, with whom he kept friendly relations, and so Uncle Sam was able to feed his troops at bargain prices, since Grant put the profit back into food purchases and did not have to requisition the amount of other food ordinarily required. While in Texas and Mexico, he grew to greatly admire his commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, whose understated, unpretentious manner and friendly relationships with those he commanded Grant would later emulate.

Smith carries us through all of Grant’s major battles, including Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. He argues convincingly that Grant was never corrupted, but that those that would overturn the victory for African-Americans gained by the Civil War by denying them suffrage went out of their way to smear Grant’s reputation. Grant was also somewhat naïve when it came to politics. Surely he had had to deal with military politics—struggles for control between generals and generals, between generals and bureaucrats—but he did not understand initially how limited the executive power is, and how much Congress can undermine a president.

Grant had not wanted to become president, had in fact hoped to return to the beautiful West Coast after the war, but Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination, so brutally and intentionally set about dismantling Lincoln’s legacy that he felt compelled to run. He was nominated by his party unopposed, never even attended the nominating convention, and won the general election by a landslide.

The American people loved him. I myself feel he was our last truly progressive president, and although Smith never makes such a flat assertion as mine, he gives me plenty of documentation to back it with, should I ever again find myself in a position where it’s called for.

This tome is not for the novice. If the reader is new to the American Civil War, I recommend James McPherson’s Pulitzer winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which is lengthy, comprehensive, and fascinating. For those looking for less of a time commitment, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, well researched historical fiction which also won the Pulitzer, is excellent. If you like it and want more, his son Jeff has continued the series one battle at a time, and I have yet to find a book he’s written that is not worth your time and money. All of these titles are reviewed on my blog.

For those that know the basics of the Civil War but are interested in learning more about Grant himself, this biography is the best I have read to date apart from his autobiography, which is also excellent.

Highly recommended to those with a strong interest; basic knowledge of the American Civil War; and college level literacy skills and stamina. Brilliant work.