Book Review: Operation Certain Death by Damien Lewis (Three Stars)


Book Review: Operation Certain Death: The Inside Story of One of the Greatest SAS Battles by Damien Lewis

(Three Stars)

‘This is the point in the operation where dog sees rabbit, and dog is most definitely going to go for it. It is at this moment that Operation Certain Death has become Judgement Day for the West Side Boys.’

Well-told of a successful SAS rescue mission in Sierra Leone. Multiple points of view and roughly straight timeline increases drama. American readers are reminded that other parts of the world are in crisis and other major powers are doing something about it. Other nations don’t come off so well.

‘Be strong. A people that is not ready to die for its liberties loses them … Believe passionately in the ideas and in the way of life for which one is fighting. Liberty deserves to be served with more passion than tyranny.’ André Maurois, Memoirs

Each chapter opens with an appropriate epigram.

‘You haven’t seen these people in action. I have. Believe me, if British forces have to come in and rescue us, this place is finished. There won’t be a building left standing.’ ‘Then that, Major, will be a very good thing.’

Not sure whether to classify this as historical fiction or history. Lewis claims much research and reality behind the story at the same time he admits to fictionalizing much of it.

‘The West Side Boys’ leader had managed to develop such a close and mutually beneficial relationship with one of the Jordanians. Arms-for-diamonds deals. The Jordanian made the cash, the West Side Boys could wreak havoc and mayhem. And now they’d just turned up in the camp with some severed Kamajorheads, courtesy of the Jordanian bullets.’

Tries too hard to render the dialects. Diminishes readability without improving the atmosphere. Four different spellings for the f-word. We know many soldiers cannot communication without liberal profanity but it’s too much.

Operation Barras was a gamble that paid off in the end. It is not a gamble that many of the men would ever want to repeat.’


Book Review: The Pioneers by David McCullough (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough

(Four Stars)

“Besides the opportunity of opening a new and unexplored region for the range of natural history, botany, and medical science, there will be one advantage which no other part of the earth can boast, and which probably will never again occur; that, in order to begin right, there will be . . . no inveterate systems to overturn.” Manasseh Cutler

Excellent history of the opening of the Northwest Territory after the American War of Independence. McCullough focuses on the individuals who formed and were sent out by the Ohio Company to settle in Marietta, Ohio and environs.

“As one widely respected, later-day historian, Albert Bushnell Hart of Harvard University, would write, ‘Never was there a more ingenious, systematic and successful piece of lobbying than that of the Reverend Manasseh Cutler’ and the great Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stands Continue reading

Book Review: Three Days at the Brink, by Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney (Four Stars)


Book Review: Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II, by Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney

(Four Stars)

“Like Eisenhower and Reagan, Roosevelt was a leader who transcended his political party to fulfill a higher purpose in the presidency.”

Though it borders on a hagiography, Three Days at the Brink brings modern readers an updated perspective on both our thirty-second president and the high-level decisions that determined the course of the post-World War II world.

“Circumstances required them to engage in the painful exercise of reaching agreement, with Roosevelt serving as the leader who would help them envision and cement a partnership that would win the war.”

But …

“After the war, [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs] Molotov would acknowledge that the second front clamor was mostly a ploy. The Russians knew Continue reading

Book Review: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Five Stars)


Book Review: A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War Two by Sonia Purnell

(Five Stars)

Virginia Hall was not to be measured by normal standards.” She was an agent, [Philippe de Vomecourt of the French Resistance] conceded, who had already done “many things considered improbably, if not impossible.”

Why isn’t this a movie? Virginia Hall had as much to do with the liberation of France in 1944 as the names you read in history books. This extraordinary American persisted despite the danger, not to mention bureaucratic and chauvinist rejections, to organize and execute a huge portion of the resistance in Vichy France with spill over into the German-controlled regions.

“Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm were an example for us all,” [senior F Section agent Gerry Morel] reported. “No task was too great or too small for her; and whatever she undertook she put into it all her energy, sparing herself nothing.”

Well-researched and written. Purnell seeks primary sources and manages to uncover records (such as Hall’s 1946 award of the Croix de Guerre by France) which had been lost, misplace, or destroyed. Easy to read, despite the changing code names and unfamiliar geography. (A map of the area would have helped.)

“Eisenhower himself [said] its combined actions—sabotage, ambushes, harassment, and constant sapping of Nazi morale—had shortened the war in Europe by nine months and kept eight German divisions permanently away from the D-Day battlefields.”

The contrast between Hall’s humility and energy with the sloth and smugness of her British, French, and American (male) compatriots is vivid. The Prologue is too long and didactic. Read the rest of the book first, then the Prologue.

“She operated in the shadows, and that was where she was happiest.”


Book Review: Tap Code by Carlyle S. Harris and Sara W. Berry (Five Stars)


Book Review: Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything by Carlyle S. Harris and Sara W. Berry

(Five Stars)

“I am convinced that there is a reason for all of this. Whatever the reason, I am sure we can use this time to become emotionally and spiritually stronger.” Excerpted from Smitty’s first letter to reach Louise, Sep 1965.

Ruminations on the nature of integrity and struggle. Starting with the moment “Smitty” Harris was shot down on April 5, 1965, he and his wife Louise take the reader moment by moment through eight years of combat of a different sort than either imagines they would fight. Treated as criminals instead of prisoners of war, Harris and hundreds of other POWs (including Vietnamese and Thais) suffered starvation, deprivation, and intense psychological and physical abuse, though their captors tried to not inflict obvious wounds.

“If Smitty can do what he is doing right now, I can do this.” Louise

A compelling and well-told history. Told in a conversation voice. Folded timeline confuses. Digressions inside digressions. Needed on more Continue reading

Book Review: Elegant Etiquette of the Nineteenth Century by Mallory James (Three Stars)


Book Review: Elegant Etiquette of the Nineteenth Century by Mallory James

(Three Stars)

“The interest is in politeness, not pretension.”

Well-researched and written overview of the standards and changes in etiquette in nineteenth century England. Exhaustive survey not only of etiquette itself but what it tells us about social change and the people of that century.

“Behaving with perfect propriety and civility required no small amount of effort.”

Fortunately, brief as readers will quickly tire of detailed recitations of which authority declaimed which standard and how they might disagree.

“The paying of calls and the leaving of cards can be viewed as a ritual which kept social interaction turning.”

Why would a twenty-first century American read such a book? To ground on in the mores of a society about which mountains of literature and popular media still appear. From Jane Austin to Charles Dickens to Arthur Conan Doyle, appreciating authors of that century expands as one understands the milieu in which their fiction was set.

“When it comes to the behavior of ladies and gentlemen in the nineteenth century, we have to take into account that people were simply people.”

Book Review: Edward III: The Perfect King by Ian Mortimer (Four Stars)


Book Review: Edward III: The Perfect King by Ian Mortimer

(Four Stars)

“’The perfect king’ is not what Edward III was: it is what he tried to be. He was a prince who knew his job and did it.”

Better-than-average history. Mortimer goes behind battles and treaties to explore the personal, cultural and religious background of the high tide of the middle ages. Edward’s life is examined, warts and all, a feat in itself as reliable records are spotty.

“Edward III’s experiences are so extraordinary that the period 1326-50 reads at times like a fairy tale with footnotes.”

Beginning with Edward’s deliverance from his mother’s tyranny, Mortimer weaves this biography from the warp and weft of Continue reading

Book Review: Honorable Treachery by G. J. A. O’Toole (Three Stars)


Book Review: Honorable Treachery: A History of U. S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA by G. J. A. O’Toole

(Three Stars)

Encyclopedic but mind-numbing. To cover the topic O’Toole set out for himself necessarily demands an encyclopedic effort. On a technical level he succeeds.

“We find by fatal experience, the Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets.” John Jay, 1790

Reads like a history book, footnotes and all. Too many biographical personal details about the people and too little about what they did. Published in 1991.

“We failed to anticipate Pearl Harbor not for want of relevant materials, but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones.” “The president’s chief intelligence office, the one person in the government responsible for national intelligence, had not even been told of Continue reading

Book Review: Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley (Four Stars)


Book Review: Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

(Four Stars)

“Mrs. Lincoln may have been imprudent, but since here intentions were good, she should be judged more kindly than she has been.”

An extraordinary primary source of the 1860s. Elizabeth Keckley, born into slavery in Virginia, managed to buy her freedom by her skill as a seamstress and the help of friends white and black. She set up business in Washington, D. C., and eventually become modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars.”

“The Republican politicians must pay my debts. Hundreds of them are immensely rich off the patronage of my husband, and it is but fair that they should help me out of my embarrassment.” Mary Todd Lincoln

That Mary Todd Lincoln was the source and embodiment of her own troubles is not denied. Rather Keckley draws attention to those who tried to help the trouble woman, and those who did not.

“I believe that I could then have forgiven everything for the sake of one kind word. But the kind word was not proffered.”

A mirror of an age. Some of her revelations are unexpected. Notice the apparent contradiction between the previous and following quotations.

“You do not know the Southern people as well as I do—how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”

Keckley visited her former owners after the war, in apparent harmony.

“Even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, “Peace! You have suffered! Go in peace.”

Sadly, after this was published in 1868, Mrs. Lincoln suffered more tragedy, with the death of her youngest son, Tad, in 1871. She never recovered.

“What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity.”

Book Review: Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (Four Stars)


Book Review: Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas

(Four Stars)

“It is remarkable how little concern men seem to have for logic, statistics, and even, indeed, survival: we live by emotion, prejudice, and pride.” DDE

Another timely correction to the popular and scholarly evaluation of the presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower. For years both the media and academia have repeated a false, sometimes willfully so, image of our 34th president.

“The hatchet job was one of the most lasting and effective in political history.”

Thorough research and clear prose undergird Thomas’s work. Unlike what we read at the time and since, he reveals Continue reading