Joan, by Katherine J. Chen****

“Once you lift a sword, it is hard to put down again.”

I’ve been curious about Joan of Arc for a long time. I love military history, and as a feminist, I also love that Joan was responsible for leading French victories centuries before women were permitted to serve in the military of any major power. When I saw that Katherine J. Chen had written a “secular reimagining of the epic life of Joan of Arc…a feminist celebration of one remarkable—and remarkably real—woman who left an indelible mark on history,” I was all in.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

In her end notes, Chen tells us that Joan’s biographers tend to leave out her difficult home life, with a violent, angry father that hates Joan from the moment she draws breath; he has wagered heavily on her being male, and she’s failed him. Chen sees it as a major factor in Joan’s development as a warrior.

When Joan leaves home, after her beloved uncle leaves and her elder sister, her one true friend within the family, commits suicide after she is raped by English soldiers, she expects to labor for her bread, which is nothing new to her. But ultimately, she wants to get word to the Dauphin, the heir to the throne, who is in hiding: she knows how to win this war.

I absolutely love the version of Joan that Chen develops, and my only frustration is in not knowing what aspects of Joan’s life she has had to invent, and which are historically accepted as truth. She tells us that Joan’s biographers would have her praying constantly, and that they depict Joan as little more than a totem that they carry to battle, a sort of human version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. And then I wonder even more: what facts are undisputed? Of course the Church would depict Joan as hugely religious, given that she has been beautified as a saint. Did she actually influence the battle plans? This part is frustrating to me. Had more information been provided, this would be a five star review.

In any case, the battle scenes are riveting, and Joan’s character is unforgettable. I look forward to seeing what Chen writes next.

Recommended to all that love the genre.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden*****

Though I usually review books that are either newly published or are about to be, once in awhile I reach back and discuss books that have been around for awhile. This one is excellent, and I consider it unmissable.

This book is phenomenal. How much do any of us know about Genghis Khan?

One thing I learned in discussion with my spouse, who is a Japanese citizen, is that whereas we from Western cultures pronounce the warrior’s name with a hard G, Asians–including the Mongolian culture from which the Khan emerged–pronounce it softly, like a J. I figure Mongols know how the name should be pronounced, so I have begun to pronounce it that way, too.

I wanted to read this series, or at least the first entry, because although I have read at least something about most of the greatest warriors in the world over time, I had read nothing about Genghis. We have a nonfiction tome, but it’s the sort of slog one only undergoes out of desperation, or as assigned coursework.

The first two or three chapters seemed fine, but not great. I wasn’t even sure if I would read the rest of the series. By the halfway point, however, my mind had changed completely! I found myself online doing image searches for the housing, clothing, and other parts of the nomadic life.

I have purchased the next in the series. I rarely buy books for myself, because I have so many already and have such constant access to galleys that it isn’t necessary; yet now and then, there’s a book I’ve gotta have, and that’s how I feel about this series.

Highly recommended for those that are interested in this time and place in history; in Genghis himself; or in military history.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

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.

Highly recommended.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Going to the Mountain, by Ndaba Mandela*****

GoingtotheMountainNelson Mandela’s hundredth birthday approaches. His grandson Ndaba, whom Mandela raised following his release from prison, talks about growing up with the titan that led the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. He reflects on Xhosa culture and the role that it played in the struggle and in his own development, and it is within this framework that he talks about his grandfather, and about the future of his people.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early.

Ndaba spent his early years moving between his parents’ households. His mother struggled with alcoholism and other disorders; his father was ill, and would later die from AIDS. He tells of the surreal juxtaposition of the slum that had been his entire experience with his grandfather’s house, where he had his own room, food that was healthy and prepared for him, clothing, and even a video game system; it was just about everything a child could ask for, but it came at the price of separation from his mother, and he rebelled and acted out in response. As a man with a wider view of the past, he recognizes that this was by far the best outcome, but for many years he resisted, yet was safe because of his grandfather’s stable influence and wisdom.

He speaks of having come to Disney World as a youngster, where he was engaged in conversation with a friendly American, who asked him, as they stood in line for a ride, how big the lions are in Africa. Ndaba, of course, grew up in an urban environment and had no more seen a lion wandering around than the questioner had. He came to realize that these are the stereotypes that the Western world has for Africa: lions in rural areas, and crime in the cities. Dangerous animals; dangerous people.  He suggests that the U.S.A.  improve its own police forces before presuming to talk to South Africans about theirs.

He has a point.

The entire memoir is told using Xhosa folk tales as allegory, and the result is glorious and deeply moving. Although I seldom become teary while reading, a good hard lump formed in my throat when he spoke of taking his grandfather on his final journey to Capetown.

Highly recommended to everyone, whether you know the history of the South African Revolution or are new to it.