Book Review: A Noble Cunning by Patricia Bernstein (four stars)

Book Review: A Noble Cunning: The Countess and the Tower by Patricia Bernstein (four stars)

“I would see acres of valiant man slaughtered and young King James drowned in the English Channel if it meant you would come back to me.”

Excellent historical fiction; especially for Bernstein’s first novel. Extraordinary and extraordinarily literate characters. Many historical and cultural connections pull the reader deeply into that time and place.

“I have absolute faith that we can save you, but if you have already given up, we can do nothing for you. All I ask is that you fight for yourself!”

That era’s anti-Catholic sentiment is the warp of the tale. The weft the true story of the historic Winifred Herbert Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale. In most particulars the narrative follows the actual history, even to some details. Why then, did Bernstein change the lady’s identity? (Don’t read her story; it tells all.)

“All other things to their destruction draw, Only our love hath no decay.” John Dunne

Appropriate epigrams open each chapter. Awkward Italics font impedes reading.

“It was all so long ago and far away and had possibly happened to some ancestor of mine, in a previous era.”

(Full disclosure: Got ARC free in exchange for an honest review.)

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (four stars)

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport (four stars)

“For Philip Chadbourn, that day had been a point of significant and perhaps optimistic transition – ‘the blank between the reels’ – separating ‘the black misery and injustice of the first reel’ and the ‘red revolt and bright heroics of the second’.”

The defining year of the twentieth century. The 1917 Russian revolutions in Petrograd as seen by various westerners, mostly English and American, who witnessed it happen. Uniquely British and American condescension to the plight of the Russian people, even as many of them enjoyed (initially) access to the highest levels of Russian aristocracy.

‘This man Trotzky is the king of agitators; he could stir up trouble in a cemetery.’

Rappaport draws heavily on primary sources to create a history which, while it may have a western bias, will be more accessible and understandable to western readers. Whatever their opinions at the beginning all are convinced their witnessing a really big train wreck by the end of the year. Many are thankful just to get out alive.

Kerensky was ‘more afraid of doing the wrong thing than anxious to do the right one,’ he wrote in his later memoirs, ‘and so he did nothing until he was forced into action by others.’

Like the witnesses, readers are left to discern the motives of the various actors for themselves. Even among the press representatives personal bias weighs as heavily as facts on what they see and report.

‘Russia is a wonderful country, full of lights and shadows, though just now the shadows have the advantage. It is too bad that the world must lose so much that was beautiful in Russia to receive – what? Something much worse than nothing.’

Book Review: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca (three stars)

Book Review: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated the Nation by Brad Ricca (three stars)

“Vice conditions here in the city are astounding,” Grace said. “The ‘good people’ of New York are as much asleep to the nastiness of their city as the nation appears to be to the seriousness of our war.”

A well-written, if pointless history of the career of a female detective. If she was New York’s greatest, New York is in trouble. Grace Humiston’s approach to crime foreshadowed Joe McCarthy’s to politics. She saw all crime through a single lens—white slavery—and developed her cases accordingly.

Grace had gone from the most celebrated woman in New York City to something of a pariah. But she was still trying to save the girls of her city.

Twice as long as necessary. Too many rabbit trails; too many extraneous details. Paid by the word? Ricca seems proud of every shred of fact he unearthed relating to Humiston or anyone she met on the street.

“I believe the city as a whole has felt that the work of the police department was and is steadily improving,” the mayor said. New Yorkers read it in disbelief.

That said, an interesting recreation of New York City crime, corruption, and journalism a hundred years ago. Little seems to have changed other than technology.

The reader must, as those of the time had to, consider each individual source. That is part of the story, too.

Book Review: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones (four stars)

Book Review: Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones (four stars)

‘That all this can still be traced back to the machinations of powerful men in the seventh century a.d. may seem astonishing—but as so often proves the case, the Middle Ages remain with us today.’

Excellent overview of the trends and influences of that epoch of history roughly between the fifth and sixteenth centuries. Thematically developed with attention to inventions, economics, trade, religion, and exploration. Ties many streams together to promote understanding.

‘For generations, historians have been trying to fight the idea that the medieval Crusades were at root a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian and Islamic worlds. For one thing, such a stark and binary reading of medieval history plays uncomfortably into the narratives of extremist factions today.’

Readable and engaging prose. Like a novelist, Jones starts chapters in the middle of that topic and backtracks to develop his tale. Occasionally confusing. Ties historic and contemporary events, occasionally padding with personal opinion and bias.

‘My aim with all my books is to entertain as well as inform. If this one does a little bit of both, I shall consider it a blessing.’

Book Review: Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization by Meredith F. Small (three stars)

Book Review: Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization by Meredith F. Small (three stars)

‘Many of these Venetian firsts were still with us, part of the fundamentals of Western culture, how we think and how we operate.’

Disappointing. Want to like this book because I agree with its premise. Too much padding, too many opinions disguised as fact, awkward presentation.

‘Today we anthropologists call that cultural indoctrination a belief system.’

Belongs on the same shelf as How the Irish saved Civilization and How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Simply reading Wikipedia supports Small’s major argument. Much of the rest is hyperbole and fluff; entertaining but didactic.

‘According to Marx, capitalism contains within it the “seeds of its own destruction” as the rich overreach, consolidate their power and grip, and choke off their own economic growth. Venice was, in fact, a prime example of Marx’s philosophy.’

Cynical, socialist take on capitalism, innovation, and property rights. Skip the first chapter; you’ll read her opinions on creativity and humanism many more times. Uses statistics to inflate, not to inform.

‘Today there are 6.5 million people in Italy.’ (more like 65 million), ‘As imaginary, as we do today as we do with online transfers.’ (huh?), ‘This book is not just for Venetofiles.’ (ph, not f), ‘they perfected the thermometer” (invented), ‘When John Quincy Adams … as he helped give birth to the United States.” (John, not John Quincy, his son), ‘The city of Trieste, north of Venice’ (east), ‘Some doctors proscribed electrotherapy’ (prescribed?).

Needs another proof reading. Many errors of history, geography, and grammar. Reads as if translated from a foreign language. Awkward verb choices knock the reader out of the narrative trying to decipher the meaning. Many foreign phrases not translated.

‘Ironically, this city is the father of capitalism, yet it feels like end-stage capitalism now.’

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

‘He went to a lot of trouble to appear average, to seem ordinary, to appear guileless. And he fooled most people most of the time, including most of his biographers.’

Published posthumously in 1987, Miller squeezed 600 pages squeezed into 1200. Pages of trivia, gossip, and speculation. Lots of quotable epigrams and original source material. Enough intimate insights to give the reader a deep understanding of Ike. However, given Miller’s Plain Speaking controversy and all the questionable quotes from impossible-to-trace sources, how are readers to separate be fact and fiction?

‘Omar Bradley later said, “Ike liked people and it is awfully hard for them not to like him in return.”’

Starts smartly with Ike’s years at West Point, then backtracks to a detailed biography of his entire family almost back to the Flood. No bit of trivia or controversy is too minute to earn a place, including advertising taglines from businesses cited.

‘He did not do much to interfere with the freewheeling reign of Joseph R. McCarthy.’

Miller gets verifiable facts wrong. For example, David A NicholsIke and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, reveals that Ike covertly torpedoed McCarthy while never mentioning his name. (Miller had his own very public issues with McCarthy.)

“I want every American unit not actually in the front line to see this [Nazi concentration camp, Ohrdruf]. We are told that the American soldier does not know what at he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” (D. D. Eisenhower)

Presumably, most of Miller’s material in meticulously researched and documented. His style was “warts and all” minutia, but even a one percent fabrication rate becomes tens of pages of error. How is the reader to known what to believe?

Eisenhower was “the wistful exponent of a simpler and lost America.”

Book Review: Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941 – 1945 by John C. McManus (Four Stars)

Book Review: Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941 – 1943 by John C. McManus (Four Stars)

“And on the American side, the land war was fought primarily by the Army, though popular memory has focused almost exclusively on the comparatively smaller Marine effort.”

A corrective for the incomplete and Marine Corp-centric detailing of the other half of World War Two. Based on original sources from dairies of dead Japanese and American soldiers to those of the three-stars. Excellent context for American involvement in subsequent Southeast and Southwest Asia conflicts.

The Death March was not an organized, calculated atrocity, in the manner of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the cold-blooded executions in Katyn Forest. Instead, it was the product of chaos, poor planning, command confusion, inertia, disorganization, and dismissive cruelty. The ubiquitous cruelty of many Japanese guards and their propensity toward mindless violence was another matter altogether.

Probably more than the average reader wishes of the brutality of war, especially of the inhuman treatment of the survivors Bataan. Repetitious and slow moving. McManus repeats whole paragraphs and pages of previous material.

“He was . . . the only commander I recall who used the heading bearing his own name for official messages and communiqués,” Eisenhower later said. Of 142 communiqués dispatched by USAFFE headquarters during this period, 109 mentioned only MacArthur.

Exhaustive detailing of the leadership foibles which helped and hindered the Allied effort in the Pacific and Asia. Probably only needed to be told once what an egomaniac MacArthur was. He was not alone. That the Army, Navy and Marines fought their own intercollegiate war is not news either.

One soldier, writing to his mother late in 1943, expressed a fairly typical sentiment. “I guess everyone back home thinks MacArthur is some swell fellow. But the boys in the Southwest Pacific have another idea. He doesn’t do anything but ride around in his big car and live in a Hotel. He doesn’t know how it is up here in the jungle.”

Much has been written, then and now, about the huge materiel advantage of the United States, but having all that stuff and getting it to the soldiers at the front are two different things. Over and over the United States flunks logistics. In Vietnam, in the Gulf War and (I suspect) since we ship piles of stuff to the warfighters, the medics, the cooks, and much of it ends up rotting on some beach. (I was at Dhahran in 1990; the desert next to the cargo ramp was filled with hundreds on pallets (big, modern pallets) of stuff and nobody knew where it was or who it was for. My aircraft maintainers searched it for pallets for other maintainers throughout Arabia, but the war was practically over before that backlog got cleared away.

“The true determining factor in this conflict’s outcome, as with nearly all wars, was human will. In the Pacific, the Americans would be determined to fight to the finish with all weapons at their disposal, while observing only the rules that led to survival and victory. This has not been true in the decades since.”

This book ends with Tarawa in November 1943.

Though none of the soldiers could have known that the reversal at Moresby foretold the future pattern of the war, when the Japanese would seldom again advance strategically, at least on land, they did sense that a terrible moment had come. “We never knew how to retreat because we had never done it before,” one [Japanese] NCO later said.

Book Review: The Vikings: A New History by Neil Oliver (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Vikings: A New History by Neil Oliver (Three Stars)

“If you ask me, a fascination triggered by a story heard in childhood — be it from a novel, action-movie or whatever else — is the purest of all.”

A comprehensive investigation into the roots and impact of the Viking expansion period in the ninth and tenth centuries. Much of the pop culture image is wrong, but we knew that. Not that Oliver hews to high academia. Think of this as one person’s informed musings.

“The Vikings were a long time coming. The product of 8,000 years’ worth of lives lived — hunters, farmers and metal-workers; masters of boats, carved in stone and crafted from timber; traders in amber, furs and oil; warriors and kings; clients of Rome.” (True of all western Europe)

Stars slowly and follows many extraneous rabbit trails. Two hundred pages of scholarship spread among two hundred pages of opinion. No archeology project too small or too unrelated to fail to distract Oliver from touting his favorite field.

“the so-called ‘Near East’ of Mesopotamia”

Quibbles: He gets lots of details wrong, which uncuts the credibility of the rest.

“one story suggested by …” “I like to imagine …” “Maybe some of the inspiration for those elegant craft had come …” “I even like the thought that …” “it is hard to resist the notion that …”

Oliver trashes his sources but then builds on their unreliable testimony anyway. He passes off his opinions as fact. Most of the above quotes all occurred on one page. The book’s big weakness is also makes it so readable: Oliver repeatedly injecting himself into the narrative. Reads like the script to reality television.

“In any event its appearance in a village on a Swedish island is as surprising as would be the discovery of a pair of Swedish skis beneath the paved floor of a Thai temple.”  (Not so.)

Book Review: Selkirk’s Island by Diana Souhami (Four Stars)

Book Review: Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe by Diana Souhami (Four Stars)

“‘Our Pinnace return’d from the shore’ Woodes Rogers wrote in his journal, ‘and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth’d in Goat Skins who look’d wilder than the first Owners of them.’”

The prototype for Robinson Crusoe was more extraordinary but less uplifting than Daniel Defoe’s fictional hero. His humanness as well as that of scallywags with whom he sailed—and who marooned him in the South Pacific—bursts through in Souhami’s meticulously researched volume.

“[Dampier] bragged ‘that he knew where to go and could not fail of taking to the value of £500,000 any Day in the year’.† He was not believed. This captain, when it came to action, hid behind a mattress and gave no orders. He was cowardly, incompetent and usually drunk.”

Alexander Selkirk’s “rescue” comes halfway through his story. It goes downhill from there. He was a born buccaneer, despite a Scot Presbyterian upbringing and the four years isolation. Sadly, this tiger didn’t change his stripes, even though contemporaries whitewashed his story as a modern (eighteenth century) Pilgrim’s Progress. Defoe met Selkirk and undoubtedly recognized that he was not the morally uplifting hero the public needed. Hence his fictional re-incarnation.

“He was, he thought, a better cook, tailor and carpenter than before, and a better Christian too.” Followed by a discussion of his sexual relations with the goats.

Souhani tells Selkirk’s tale “warts and all.” The telling is occasionally tedious, occasionally shocking. But the truth tells through.

“This plain Man’s Story is a memorable Example, that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities; and he that goes further in his Desires, increases his Wants in Proportion to his Acquisitions; or to use his own Expression, I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.”

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and Mark Salter (Four Stars)

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir by John McCain and Mark Salter (Four Stars)

“If you valued them, and held them strongly, love and honor would endure undiminished by the passing of time and the most determined assault on your dignity.”

An engaging family history by the deceased senator and POW. Written presumably as a presidential propaganda piece for McCain’s first run for the Oval Office. Despite that it is well-written and absent the vitriol expected from politicians.

“Some officers get it backwards. They don’t understand that we are responsible for our men, not the other way around. That’s what forges trust and loyalty.” John S. McCain Jr. (his father)

McCain credits his grandfather and father with both his dedication to service to his country and the strength of character which saw him through six years of isolation and torture as a prisoner of war.

“Like other senior commanders, [my father] believed the United States had squandered its best opportunity to win the war in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, ‘when we had destroyed the back of the Viet Cong…. And when we had finally drawn North Vietnamese troops out into the open.’”

McCain’s criticism of how LBJ and McNamara mishandled the Vietnam War is shared by almost every participant. I was one of them. It was a stupid waste of humanity and resources and accomplished nothing. That Nixon did little better during his first term indicates what a Gordian Knot a land war in Asia can become. Apparently, we unlearned that lesson in one generation.

“A lot of men died who shouldn’t have, the victims of genuine war crimes.”

Never a classic conservative or Republican, he was a man of integrity who followed his inner compass even when those around him urged him not to.

“This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to. It was the faith I had unknowingly embraced at the Naval Academy. It was my father’s and grandfather’s faith. A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”