Book Review: Faster by Neal Bascomb (four stars)

Book Review: Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best by Neal Bascomb (four stars)

“To win the prize, it is necessary to take great risks.” René Dreyfus

Excellent history of inter war auto racing in Europe emphasizing the struggle of Lucy Schell to a field competitive French Grand Prix car against the Silver Arrows of Mercedes and Auto Union in the gathering dusk before World War Two.

“There was only one thing wrong, [Redacted]. The others drove like mad, but you drove like … a night watchman.”

Ostensibly about Lucy Schell’s Écurie Bleue team headed by René Dreyfus driving Delahaye racers, the book traces the fortunes, genius, and compromises of many teams and drivers pursuing their sport while civilization teetered on the brink. As much about Rudi Caracciola as René Dreyfus.

Races were increasingly a battleground between nations rather than individual drivers, and the Nazis were clearly investing to dominate.

Photos and maps enhance the reader’s appreciation. Name and nickname changes muddle the narrative. Skip the self-serving introduction bogs the story. The prologue is fine. Appropriate 30s style cover.

“We cannot go on this way … One of us will die.” Bernd Rosemeyer

Book Review: Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation POSTMASTER by Brian Lett (four stars)

Book Review: Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation POSTMASTER: the Top Secret Story behind 007 by Brian Lett (four stars)

Rather than going through the lengthy and tiresome process of obtaining permission to requisition such a craft, March-Phillipps simply went out and bought one a few days before Christmas of 1940. (Bond would no doubt have done exactly the same.)

Excellent history of a daring and successful British special operation in western Africa. Two problems: it was an unnecessary and potentially ruinous mission, and for the purposes of titling this history Ian Fleming had little to do with the conception or execution of Postmaster. Fleming’s place in the title and text is presumably a marketing ploy.

Perhaps it would not be out of place to observe that one of the chief reasons for the creation of SOE was the desirability of an organization whose actions could be disowned by His Majesty’s Government.

A sad consequence of Special Operations Executive’s flagrant disregard for international norms and neutrality were the cavalier and even more destruction actions of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, itself something of a SOE spinoff, in the decades after World War Two.

Many commandos were trained to kill in ‘Bond’ fashion, but very few indeed had the ability so expertly to deceive.

Despite constant references to Fleming and his later literary creations, he was more observer than actor. Apparently, Fleming recognized the literary potential of this type of mission, which remained classified until after his death. Lett has it backward. Bond wasn’t the inspiration of Postmaster as he knows better but implies; Postmaster inspired Fleming to create Bond, but that is typical for the convoluted logic.

One of March-Phillipps’ pencilled standing orders to his crew reads: ‘Avoid a fight if humanly possible, but resist capture to the last.’

Book Review: Why Soldiers Miss War: The Journey Home by Nolan Peterson (five stars)

Book Review: Why Soldiers Miss War: The Journey Home by Nolan Peterson (five stars)

“When the bullets are flying and shit starts blowing up, you’re not thinking about any of that duty, honor, country bullshit. You focus on taking care of your buddy next to you and making it out alive.” 

A decade of war correspondence strung together chronologically with autobiographical bridge stories. many chapters start in the middle of their story, backtrack to the beginning, conclude the action, then close with some philosophic observation. War, he discovers, is very different in the foxhole than in the cockpit of an American combat aircraft.

What incredible things people do, and what endless suffering they are willing to endure for freedom. It’s true, freedom isn’t free. It’s worth everything. 

Many insights into the nature of war and its impact on humans, but lots of repetition. Broadens our view to include non-soldiers, especially family and civilians, whose lives are torn apart through no fault or choice of their own. Full of memorable epigraphs. The framing story to all this is Peterson’s personal search for home and meaning.

And I won’t let the world forget the good people who stood up for what was right when the world was at its worst. James [Foley] was one of those people, and I won’t forget his story. 

No, it’s not that good, but Peterson shares things you need to hear. Many sites he reported from during the first war in Ukraine have been overrun by Russia since. And the people? Who knows? His current articles may be found on Coffee or Die magazine of which he is senior editor.

Our troops might not necessarily believe that the wars will be won anytime soon, but they all seemed to believe in what they were fighting for. 

(I’m prejudiced. I am a Vietnam, Cold, and Gulf Wars veteran. Scud impact hundreds of yards away was too close.)

Book Review: X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II by Leah Garrett (four stars)

Book Review: X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II by Leah Garrett (four stars)

‘Although he had escaped internment, as he said later, the impact of being classified as an enemy alien had a profound effect on [Colin Anson]. It made him feel, as he said later, as if he had to “apologize for every breath of English air.”’

Well-documented history of a unique unit of the British army in World War Two consisting almost exclusively of young German and Austrian Jews who had barely escaped the wrath of Hitler only to be mistrusted by the British. Wherever and whatever the mission, if it was important one or two X Troopers probably led the way.

“We were reborn in Aberdovey [training site]. As far as I was concerned, five years living as a pariah and four years of being an enemy alien were behind us, and we were somebody new now.” Manfred Gans

Garrett writes a clear and compelling story of courage and heroism. She deserves credit for assuring this tale is documented and recorded. The text begs proofing and tightening.

‘Of the forty-five X Troopers who had landed in Normandy on D-Day, more than half, twenty-seven, had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.’

The sad epilogue to these men’s service was that the country for which they sacrificed, and many died, begrudged them recognition. They were patched up, promoted, and sent back into the fight. When it was over, they were again classified as enemy aliens and barred from further service. They were eventually granted citizenship, but to this day their Jewishness is obscured.

Oft I listened to the chime, To the dulcet, ringing rhyme,

Of the bells of Aberdovey. I first hear them years ago

When, careless and light-hearted, I thought not of coming woe,

Nor of bright days departed; Now those hours are past and gone,

And when the strife of life is done, Peace is found in heaven alone,

Says the bells of Aberdovey.

Book Review: Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution by Woody Holton (three stars)

Book Review: Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution by Woody Holton (three stars)

The Battle of the Monongahela was the first major engagement of the world’s first global war.

An excellent concept: explore the American War of Independence in the broader context of time, persons and motives. Largely works, but often bogs down in reminders of that broadness. Readability suffers. The book would have benefited by a ten per cent reduction. His economic take is stale.

The crucial fact about the emerging conflict between colonies and crown—so often missed by the mythmakers—was that British officials, not American colonists, were the ones demanding change.

For example, rather than starting with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, Holton delves into the impact of earlier actions on both sides of the Atlantic, including the 1651 and following Navigation Acts which created the imbalance between the colonies and mother country. Slavery, of course, impacted motives on both sides also. Holton’s investigation of relations with the Native Americans adds a dimension usually ignored. As are the actions and opinions of females on all sides.

[Phillis] Wheatley was willing to concede the morality of chattel slavery in order to upend racial prejudice—a painful choice but also logical, if you believe, as she did, that racism was the root and slavery only its venomous stem, incapable of living without it.

Holton makes no secret of his disdain for American exceptionalism and for the idea that the founders were larger than like. In case the reader misses his message, he often interrupts the text to explain himself. Again. Freely inserts snide irrelevancies.

The “desperate valor” exhibited by the Rhode Island 1st Regiment as it repelled three waves of onrushing Hessians impressed observers in other units—and also surprised them, for two reasons. The first was that most of them had never seen battle before; the second was that they were Black.

Unfortunately for students of history, Holton is forced to retell the entire war in order to fit it into his framing narrative. But then he can’t assume that modern readers know the chronology or major events. It allows him to re-spin everything.

[Carl von] Donop took a musket ball in the groin, was captured by the fort’s defenders, and succumbed seven days later, reportedly declaring, “I die the victim of my ambition and of the avarice of my sovereign.”

One group Holton ignores, other than as villains, are the conscripted Germans who fought and died in a country, a war, and for a king not their own.

By 1781, the British had helped the Indians assemble a confederacy powerful enough to survive even Britain’s betrayal the following year.

Adds depth to the background and evolution of independence, but if you plan to read only one history of the Revolution don’t make it this one.

The mythologization of the founding rebels has played out as a revolt against complexity. Flattering and flat celebrations of the Founders often proceed from a laudable desire to instill patriotism in the young (they also sell well), but they have always seemed more appropriate to authoritarian regimes, and they have slandered history by making it dull.

Book Review: When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield by Peter Charles Hoffer (four stars)

Book Review: When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield: Enlightenment, Revival, and the Power of the Printed Word by Peter Charles Hoffer (four stars)

‘Without meaning to sound old-fashioned, this volume rests on the assumption that there are people who both represent their times and alter them in crucial ways. Franklin and Whitefield were two such men, even though they seemed polar opposites in their thinking.’ 

Excellent history of two of the most influential men in the first half of the eighteenth century in North America, George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin. Narrowly focused on them and their working relationship. Extensive quotes from each man’s writings aid readers to understand both the writer and the message.

‘Franklin became Whitefield’s promoter and publicist in America, and Whitefield’s peregrinations made Franklin’s newspaper must reading for everyone curious about the Great Awakening of religiosity.’

Both men were self-made colossi amid the already-outsized personalities of the eighteenth century. They were as instrumental to creating of the state of America as others were to creating the nation.

‘Franklin’s star had not risen as fast as Whitefield’s in the first years of the 1740s, but by the end of the decade he was the better-known figure throughout the empire.’ 

Compare with The Preacher and the Printer. Each is a twenty-first century take on eighteenth century giants. Worth reading.

‘Neither individualism nor equality was a dominant theme in Western life at the beginning of the eighteenth century. At its end, with Franklin often cited as an example, both individualism and equality were synonymous with America.’

Book Review: Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn (three stars)

Book Review: Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn (three stars)

“There is nothing more common,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia in 1786, “than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.”

A competent, if over long survey of the American revolutionary period. A necessary corrective for those thinking the revolution ended in 1776, or 1781, or 1787. Students of history already know recent elections are not the first stirred with scandal and accusations of false dealing

‘The leaders of the Virginia dynasty—Jefferson, Madison, Monroe—cherished liberty and equality and trumpeted the pursuit of happiness, but they were unwilling—or perhaps intellectually unable—to begin the process of creating institutions and programs to extend those principles to all Americans.’

She makes the case that a robust two-party system is vital to American democracy despite that all the politicians, including Jefferson, wanted only one party—theirs. That most were inconsistent, if not out-right hypocrites is well documented. Like a dime novel, she opens with a sensational cliffhanger which she doesn’t work her back to until two-thirds through. Reads like a research paper, the footnotes mercifully at the end.

“The party committed suicide,” wrote a frustrated [John] Adams, and “indicted me for the murder.”

Numerous false details alert the reader to possible errors in more weighty topics. Dozens of “historian said” references, which add little to her narrative but bloat. Students of history are wary of manufactured and even inverted citations, ala Ward Churchill. Dunn and her readers would be better served had she restrained herself to primary sources.

‘Like Machiavelli, Tocqueville came to the sagacious conclusion that the guardian of freedom was tumult. The direct source of the tumult? Democracy itself.’

A glance at her other titles suggests Dunn’s agenda, which she pursues here. The founders were not trying to establish a democracy—they rightly feared that word, especially has it manifested itself in France—but a republic.

‘Under Jefferson and Madison, radical, revolutionary ideas—equality, majority rule, self-interest, democracy—had entered the mainstream of American politics. The old style of elitist, deferential politics was gone for good.’

Book review: Revolutionaries by Jack N. Rakove (four stars plus)

Book review: Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack N. Rakove (four stars plus)

“Washington never allowed the army to disdain its civilian superiors. Fabius was the role circumstances forced him to play, Cincinnatus the character his own more closely resembled.”

If you read only one history book about the American revolutionary period, read this one. That said, readers without a passing knowledge of the 1770s and 80s may get lost in Rakove frequent digressions and flashbacks within flashbacks.

“Where the ideologue Adams believed that a raw lust for power was driving Britain’s leaders to seek dominion over America, Morris preferred to blame obtuse stupidity and miscalculation. But both agreed that British missteps, rather than American desires, had brought the colonies to the point of independence.”

Rakove is of the people-make-history school, but also posits that some people rise to the challenge better than others. This collection of mini biographies is fleshed out by considering more than the obvious giants of the age.

Madison was at once a constitutional radical, celebrating the capacity of his countrymen to rethink basic questions of republican government, and a political conservative who never underestimated the risks they were taking. That too was part of his political genius.”

Unlike so many modern historians, Rakove keeps his opinions to himself and does not batter the reader with his agenda. There’s plenty of credit and blamer for most everything that went right and wrong.

“All of them shared that one characteristic that Hamilton memorialized in Nathanael Greene. ‘Those great revolutions which sometimes convulse society,’ Hamilton reminded his brother officers of the Cincinnati, had also this merit: ‘that they serve to bring to light talents and virtues which might otherwise have languished in obscurity or only shot forth a few scattered and wandering rays.’”

Book Review: Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo (three stars)

Book Review: Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo (three stars)

A photographer spotted him and called out, “Look this way, Mr. President.” “I’m not ‘Mr. President’ anymore,” Truman answered with a smile. “I’m just plain Harry Truman.”

A story that reaches across seventy years from the last president of the old style. Less than a year after leaving the highest office in the land, Harry and Bess Truman got in their Chrysler and drove 2500 miles. Alone. No escort, no security detail, occasionally unrecognized.

“I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I’d go back to.” HT

Expect a hagiography and you won’t be disappointed. Algeo has an agenda, but so do most biographers. He’s not trying to make a saint of Truman, but 33rd president comes across as his own person.

“Ain’t no use wastin’ good farmland on any old dang library,” said his brother Vivian.

No trivia too small is be included. Inserted himself way too much. Readers can be forgiven thinking the book is about Algeo, and using Truman’s name to garner sales.

“The whole trip has been heart-warming. I am amazed at the friendliness, and it makes me think that I haven’t spent my life in vain.”  HT

Book Review: John Adams Under Fire by Dan Adams (Four Stars)

Book Review: John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial by Dan Adams and David Fisher (Four Stars)

“Counsel ought to be the very last thing that an accused person should want in a free country… The bar ought…to be independent and impartial at all times and in every circumstance.” JA

A dry, over-detailed analysis of a trial 250 years ago. What possible relevance or interest might it have to Americans today? Lot.

“It was a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror of the infernal confederacy…that projected, conducted and accomplished the settlement of America.” JA

In 1770 John Adams defended nine British soldiers accused of killing five men during the so-called Boston Massacre. No one doubted the lethal shots came from the soldiers’ muskets; Sam Adams, leading Boston patriot, wanted ‘blood for blood’; If Young John Adams took the defense he’d ruin his budding law career and jeopardize his place among those leaning ever more toward independence. He did anyway. And he won.

“Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.” JA

Dan Adams meticulously documents how John Adams and Boston got to that point. In the process the reader learns how common law and English law became American law. And how the least-likeable Founder become a beacon for justice for all, and “reasonable doubt” appeared as a judicial standard.

“Adams had proved his fidelity to a much greater cause: in the words of the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, ‘We are all servants of the laws in order to be free.’”

Modern parallels abound. Hypocrisy, interfering governments, biased media reporting, conspiracy theories, public outcry and pressure. History matters.

“Yet John Adams took the defense, even though he knew it would cost him business and stature among the growing independence movement. It the short term it did, but his careful and successful defense started him on the road to leadership in the nation that was birthing.”