Review: Putting the Science in Fiction by Dan Koboldt vs. The Science of Science Fiction by Mark Brake

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres by by Dan Koboldt, Chuck Wendig , Gareth D. Jones, Bianca Nogrady, Kathleen S. Allen, Mike Hays, William Huggins, Abby Goldsmith, Benjamin Kinney, Danna Staaf, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, Judy L. Mohr, Anne M. Lipton, Jamie Krakover, Rebecca Enzor, Stephanie Sauvinet, Philip Kramer, Gwen C. Katz
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback
Genre: science, science fiction
Pages: 266
Published by Writer’s Digest Books on October 16th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres–science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

This book brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:
Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, Putting the Science in Fiction will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy,” Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction (dankoboldt.com/science-in-scifi). Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

 

The Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our Times by Mark Brake
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: science fiction, history
Pages: 272
Published by Skyhorse Publishing on October 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository
Goodreads

We are the first generation to live in a science fiction world.

Media headlines declare this the age of automation. The TV talks about the coming revolution of the robot, tweets tell tales of jets that will ferry travelers to the edge of space, and social media reports that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born. The science we do, the movies we watch, and the culture we consume is the stuff of fiction that became fact, the future imagined in our past–the future we now inhabit.

The Science of Science Fiction is the story of how science fiction shaped our world. No longer a subculture, science fiction has moved into the mainstream with the advent of the information age it helped realize. Explore how science fiction has driven science, with topics that include:

Guardians of the Galaxy Is Space Full of Extraterrestrials? Jacking In: Will the Future Be Like Ready Player One?
Mad Max Is Society Running down into Chaos? The Internet: Will Humans Tire of Mere Reality?
Blade Runner 2049 When Will We Engineer Human Lookalikes? And many more!
This book will open your eyes to the way science fiction helped us dream of things to come, forced us to explore the nature and limits of our own reality, and aided us in building the future we now inhabit.

My Review:

I have served on various book judging committees over the years. Recently I was part of a group picking the best science fiction for the year. I’m not going to say where or when, but it’s a list where the jury is still out.

But it made me think about what makes good science fiction – and conversely what doesn’t. Which led me to not one but two books in the virtually towering TBR pile, Putting the Science in Fiction and The Science of Science Fiction, both of which have been released this month.

It seemed like a golden opportunity to do a compare and contrast instead of a more traditional review.

I thought that these books would work together well. Putting the Science in Fiction was all about the inputs. It is exactly what I expected it to be. Much fiction, both written and filmed, includes some science in some form. Police dramas and mysteries deal with forensic science. Medical dramas – and not a few mysteries – deal with medical science. Science fiction, of course, is all about taking science out to the nth degree and then playing with it.

But lay people often get things wrong. There are lots of things about science that get shortchanged or simplified in order to make better drama. Anyone who is an expert in whatever has just gotten completely screwed up will cringe and just how far off-base the writer or director has just taken the science in their story.

We all do it for our own fields. And when it happens it throws the knowledgeable reader out of the story – no matter how good the rest of it might be.

Putting the Science in Fiction turns out to be a surprisingly readable collection of essays by science and engineering experts explaining the very, very basics of their fields to those of us whose expertise is somewhere else. It serves as a terrific guide for any writer who wants to follow the dictum of “write what you know” by learning more so they know more so they have more to write about.

On my other hand, The Science of Science Fiction is not what I expected it to be. I was kind of expecting it to be about SF that did well – not necessarily in the science aspect at the time so much as in the way that it captured the imagination – even to the point where the SF created the science it postulated.

There is a famous story about Star Trek: The Original Series and the invention of the cell phone that comes to mind.

But that’s not where this book went. Although that would be a great book and I hope someone writes it.

Instead, The Science of Science Fiction reads more like a history of SF written thematically rather than chronologically. It takes some of the basic tenets and tropes of SF and lays out where they began – sometimes surprisingly long ago – to where they are now.

It’s an interesting approach but it didn’t quite gel for this reader.

By way of comparison, both books talk about the science and the influences of Michael Crichton’s classic work of SF, Jurassic Park.

Putting the Science in Fiction does two things, and it does them really well. First, it conveys that “sensawunder” that SF does when it is at its best. The author of the essay is a microbiologist, who puts the science of the book in context – both the context of what was known at the time it was written (OMG 1990!) and what has been discovered since, and comes to the conclusion that he didn’t do too badly based on what was known at the time. Discoveries since have made his science fictional extrapolation less likely than it originally seemed. It’s hard to fault the author for that.

But what the author of the essay also does is to show how the book not only grabbed his interest and attention but continues to hold it to the present day, even though he knows the science isn’t remotely feasible. The book does a great job of taking just enough of the science in a direction that we want to believe is possible.

After all, who wouldn’t want to see a real live dinosaur? Under very controlled conditions. Much more controlled conditions than occur in the book, of course.

The Science of Science Fiction also discusses Jurassic Park. (A classic is a classic, after all) But instead of talking about the science of cloning the author goes into a couple of other directions. First he sets Jurassic Park within the context of other “lost world” works of science fiction. That’s a tradition that goes back to Jules Verne and even further. But it feels like the fit of Jurassic Park as part of that lost world tradition doesn’t quite fit.

The other part of this Jurassic Park discussion has to do with the way that scientists are portrayed in SF. Science makes the story possible. Scientists in fiction tend to work toward proving they can do something – in this particular case proving they can clone dinosaurs from preserved DNA. It takes a different kind of scientist, someone dealing in chaos theory, to posit that just because it CAN be done doesn’t mean it SHOULD be done. That’s a discussion I would love to see expanded. And I’d have liked this book more if it had been expanded here.

Reality Ratings: These two books struck me completely differently. Putting the Science in Fiction is both readable and does what it sets out to do – excellent points for a work designed to help writers do a more informed job of including science in their fiction. I therefore give Putting the Science in Fiction a B+.

Howsomever, The Science of Science Fiction doesn’t work nearly as well. It reads much more like a history of SF than it treats with the science of SF. That it breaks that history up into themes rather than treat it chronologically makes it jump around a bit. As SF history, it’s not nearly as readable as Astounding or An Informal History of the Hugos or What Makes This Book So Great?. While I will be tempted to dip back into Putting the Science in Fiction again when I need some explanatory material on a particular science in SF, I won’t be inclined to go back to The Science of Science Fiction. I give The Science of Science Fiction a C+

One final recommendation. Do not read the chapter in Putting the Science in Fiction about plausible methods for kicking off the Zombie Apocalypse at breakfast. Or any other meal!

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeAstounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, science fiction
Pages: 544
Published by Dey Street Books on October 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“[Astounding] is a major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.” — Publishers Weekly

"Alec Nevala-Lee has brilliantly recreated the era. . . . A remarkable work of literary history." — Robert Silverberg

"Science fiction has been awaiting this history/biography for more than half a century. . . . Here it is. This is the most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen. Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb scholarship and insight have made the seemingly impossible a radiant and irreplaceable gift."—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world. 

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology. 

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

My Review:

Vintage Astounding from 1937

They were the men who sold the moon – as well as the rest of the universe. Together they were the Golden Age of science fiction – in some ways both the quip that says that the golden age of SF is 12 and in the historical sense.

John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of what became the premiere outlet for science fiction writing during its and his heyday, from 1937 through 1946. Back in the days before SF became mainstream, the pulps were all there were, and Campbell’s Astounding was the top of the pulps as far as SF was concerned.

That golden age was when he found, mentored, developed or at least published two writers who became synonymous with SF, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, and the one who nearly broke it, L. Ron Hubbard.

While Astounding and Campbell both went on after 1946 – Astounding exists today as Analog – and all three writers’ careers flourished in their very different trajectories after that period, SF as we know it today was significantly influenced by them and/or their writing, and they, in turn, were significantly influenced by Campbell’s editorial direction. And in one significant case, vice-versa.

Together, they made the genre as we now know it. And the children who grew up reading science fiction, their particular brand of science fiction, changed the world.

Reality Rating A: First things first, this is surprisingly readable. There’s a lot of information packed in here, and it flows fairly smoothly from one page into the next. I was surprised at how completely I was drawn in and held over a very long flight. I expected to bounce in and out, and I just didn’t.

(That the book is only about ⅔ as long as it appears to be is probably a help. The final ⅓ consists of extensive notes. It is blissfully not necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the notes in order to get the story or the context. The author certainly did his homework, but it’s not required that one read it for the book to make sense.)

Campbell in 1965

While Heinlein, Asimov and Hubbard have all been written about before, and in depth, Campbell really hasn’t. And certainly should have been. For the period when Astounding was at the top of the pulps, and for some time beyond, Campbell wasn’t just the editor of a magazine – he WAS science fiction in a way that just isn’t possible now that SF has gone mainstream. His role hasn’t been recognized, possibly because there is no real equivalent today.

This multi-biography attempts to set all four men in their time as well as their relationships to each other. And while on the one hand it feels both loving and respectful, on the other it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the darker side of all four – even though much of what we now consider that dark side generally passed social muster at the time it happened.

The book does a good job of giving context for why much of what we would consider bad behavior occurred, without ever minimizing it or apologizing for it. I’m thinking particularly of Asimov’s well-known propensity for pinching women’s bottoms and other places without their consent or even seeming to acknowledge that he needed their consent. That all the women in his various editors’ and publishers’ offices literally cleared the building whenever he had an appointment seems to be a message he just never got – and certainly should have.

All of them except Asimov seemed to have drunk to considerable excess. Towards the end of their lives both Campbell and Heinlein crossed the line from conservative to reactionary. None of them gave the credit to any of their wives that was certainly due.

Campbell’s racism undoubtedly affected his gatekeeping of the genre throughout his tenure at Astounding, and is in at least some part responsible for the whiteness of SF through his era and beyond. When some 21st century fans cry out for a “Campbellian Revolution” this is part and parcel of what they are looking back to and wanting to recreate.

And everyone was way more involved in the beginning of Scientology than seems to be widely known. Only Asimov steered clear, and even he got stuck arguing with Campbell about it on multiple occasions.

But we certainly see the hand of Campbell in the underpinnings of Hubbard’s Scientology – and we see a number of promising careers get sidetracked by it. Hubbard’s most of all.

These men were the giants upon whose shoulders the genre now stands, whether their influence was mostly positive, or in Hubbard’s case mostly negative. The author does a deft job of giving them their rightful place in SF history while showing that they all had feet of clay up to the knees. If not higher.

In the end, this is a fascinating study of a group of men who made this most popular genre what it became. And it’s a great read from beginning to end.

Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Review: The Library Book by Susan OrleanThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, history, libraries, true crime
Pages: 336
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Orlean, hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post and the acclaimed bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, reopens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—our libraries.

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can. With her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books—and that they are needed now more than ever.

Filled with heart, passion, and unforgettable characters, The Library Book is classic Susan Orlean, and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture.

My Review:

This is Banned Books Week. As part of my own personal Banned Books Week celebration I read and review at least one book about libraries, or books, or a book that has been banned. Or Fahrenheit 451 which kind of hits the trifecta.

The Library Book is not about book banning. Instead, it’s about book burning. Not the kind of book burning that occurs in Fahrenheit 451, but something less political but unfortunately just as deliberate.

It’s about a real-life case that definitely involved the perfect temperature, and conditions, for burning books. An awful lot of books.

But that’s not the only thing in The Library Book. A big part of the story revolves around that calamitous fire, the ultimately inconclusive investigation into its cause, and the massive amount of effort required in its aftermath for the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library to open for business once more.

In the process of investigating the fire, the author also took a deep dive into the current operations of LAPL. In the end, this book serves as a love letter to one of the great public libraries in the United States, and ultimately to all public libraries.

The process of looking at and into LAPL as it is today, the way that its mission has changed and adapted, and all of the many ways that it continues to serve its rich and varied community, showcases the vital work that libraries perform in the 21st century. And makes the case, yet again, that libraries are not dusty repositories of books.

That the author also rediscovered her own love of libraries, and the sweetness of the childhood memories she had wrapped around them, was the icing on the cake.

Reality Rating A: When I first picked this up I was expecting more than a bit of “insider baseball” – but I’m happy to report that is not the case. The author is looking at the library’s operation from the point of view of an interested bystander, a user of libraries, and not someone on the inside.

That being said, the operations she described will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a library, particularly those of us who have worked in some of the large urban libraries. While the Los Angeles community served by LAPL is different from Chicago, many of the internal workings of a large urban library seem to be the same.

The story of the fire is fascinating and heartbreaking. Like the author, I wondered why I did not remember the events when they occurred. I was a working librarian at the time. But the fire, as big as it was (and it was HUGE) could not eclipse the news of the Chernobyl disaster. Not much can compete with the potential end of the world as we know it.

Readers will find the investigation frustrating, as did investigators at the time. The story has all the elements of a true crime thriller – but with no definitive ending. Somebody set this fire, but we’ll never know who. This part of the story lacks closure but is true to life. There was a strong suspect with a weak alibi, but ultimately it’s a mystery.

What emerges from The Library Book, along with smoke that can still be sniffed between the pages of those books that survived the fire, is a portrait of libraries as community institutions, and just how vital they can be when they reach out and serve.

In the end, the story in some ways reminds me of the recent events in Brazil and the fire that consumed the National History Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Both fires were the largest of their kind. Both took place in buildings that were known to be firetraps – places where maintenance and prevention had been neglected for years. And both were conflagrations that caused incalculable losses of knowledge and history.

LAPL rose from its ashes, with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and above all, effort. Perhaps someday the National History Museum of Brazil will as well.

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi CoatesWe Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Format: eARC
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: essays, history, nonfiction, U.S. history
Pages: 367
Published by One World on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A sweeping collection of new and selected essays on the Obama era by the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me

"We were eight years in power" was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. Now Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America's "first white president."

But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period--and the effects of the persistent, haunting shadow of our nation's old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective--the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president.

We Were Eight Years in Power features Coates's iconic essays first published in The Atlantic, including "Fear of a Black President," "The Case for Reparations," and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," along with eight fresh essays that revisit each year of the Obama administration through Coates's own experiences, observations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era. We Were Eight Years in Power is a vital account of modern America, from one of the definitive voices of this historic moment.

My Review:

I came to this book via multiple odd routes. I heard the author speak a couple of years ago, because my husband really likes his writing. While it doesn’t resonate with me quite the same way, when it does, it really, really does. Coates’ comment at the beginning of Between the World and Me regarding the social construction of whiteness in America, and how that social construct can be withheld, conferred and taken away as conditions change, spoke directly to me and my own experience as a Jew growing up in America. I was not white when I was a child. I have been through most of my adulthood. But if the neo-Nazis chanting at that Unite the Right rally last year in Charlottesville have anything to say about it, I will not be again in the future.

I was also interested in the historical resonance. I recently completed the extremely well-written (and incredibly massive) biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. The historical “eight years in power” that Coates refers to in the title of the book largely overlap the years of Grant’s administration. Grant attempted to guarantee civil rights for the newly freed slaves in the South, and broke the 19th century incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. But the resulting backlash of white supremacy swept away his achievements, and those rights that were held most dear and paid for in blood.

That the backlash in the 19th century looks all too much like the backlash after Barack Obama’s election and administration in the 21st is all too poignant. And frightening in the intensity of its fear and hate, and in the depths of its depravity and its denial that there is anything wrong that still needs to be addressed.

America was founded on and prospered because of two original sins. One was the theft of the land itself from the Native Americans who already lived here, and the generations upon generations of continuing theft, pillage, murder and suppression, all sanctioned by law.

The second original sin is chattel slavery, the kidnapping of people in Africa, their shipment to the U.S., and their continued bondage, exploitation, theft, pillage, murder and suppression, all sanctioned by law. The wealth and prosperity of this country was founded on slavery, and the suppression of the descendants of that crime continue to this day. And tomorrow.

If the arc of history does bend towards justice, it seems to operate on a geologic scale of time. What feels more real is that for every swing towards what seems like progress, there is an equal and opposing backlash that feels worse than the oppression that went before, because once there was hope, and then there isn’t.

Which sums up a lot of liberal feelings about the election of Trump, after eight years of a President who was intelligent, thoughtful, statesmanlike, progressive, an always informed if not always inspiring speaker, and scandal-free – but who just so happened to be black, which is an original sin that too many people cannot forgive. Not because he was a bad president, but because he was a good one. Not perfect, but then no human is. But good.

And in the eyes and hearts of white supremacists, his Presidency is something that must be erased or delegitimized at every turn. Because it is proof that truly anyone can hold the highest office in this land.

Unfortunately, the current occupant also proves the exact same thing. Anyone can be President. But Obama appealed to the better angels in our nature, where Trump continues to build his base among the worst elements of repression, racism, anti-semitism and suppression of any and all people who are not just like him, meaning white, male, Christian, heterosexual, and rich.

Reality Rating A: Some of the above is personal. And while it isn’t directly about the book, it also is. We Were Eight Years in Power combines essays that Coates published in The Atlantic during the course of Obama’s administration, one for each year, with a framing narrative that is his own personal story of who he was at the time, what he was trying to accomplish with his writing craft, and how he felt both about what he was writing and about the issues that he raised within it. He places himself, his research and his writing within the context of the black writers who came before him, and attempts to set himself in the context of those who will come after.

Some of the early essays are a bit dated, and occasionally it is obvious that the writer was still honing his craft. The later ones are searing in their intensity, as the author marshalls both his facts and his passion in service of stories that need to be told and things that must be said, but unfortunately seldom are.

The ending is hard to read, because we know what came after. And there is a bit of an element of what should be “preaching to the choir” but isn’t. Because I agree with the author that so much of what caused the rise of Trump is racism (along with its terrible brethren, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all the rest of the fearful hatreds of people who the perpetrators perceive as “not like them” and equate in their minds to “less human”).

But too few writers seem to be willing to call it by its name. Because until this terrible history, and the present that derives from it, is acknowledged as exactly what it is and called to account, it can never become the past, and we can never move forward.

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, espionage, history, nonfiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by Dey Street Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth's story, incredibly, has never been told

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation's history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma--and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.Fagone unveils America's code-breaking history through the prism of Smith's life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence.

Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson's bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

My Review:

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman

The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

(I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman

There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

I certainly was.

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will BardenwerperThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 272
Published by Scribner on June 6th 2017
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In the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, this remarkably insightful and surprisingly intimate portrait of Saddam Hussein lifts away the top layer of a dictator’s evil and finds complexity beneath as it invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the men learn, shortly after being deployed to Iraq, that fate has assigned them a different role. It becomes their job to guard the country’s notorious leader in the months leading to his execution.

Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him.

Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.

In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.

My Review:

Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11. As though nothing else ever happened, or ever will, that will ring through history the way that September 11, 2001 did. And that’s possibly true. Even the historic hurricane currently sweeping through Florida, while momentous, isn’t quite as earth-shattering. 9/11 was a day where the universe changed, where before and after are sharply and irrevocably separated.

While Saddam Hussein was not one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible to trace a direct line from the events of 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled his dictatorship.

This is not a book about the war. Not the U.S. invasion of 2003, nor about the the Gulf War of 1990. Although in some ways it’s about both. A part of me wants to say that the book is about the “banality of evil”, but if there is one thing that Saddam Hussein never was, it is banal.

Instead, this feels like a book about the faces that humans wear, and about one particular human being who wore the face of evil, but only among many, many others. That evil face, the one that the world righteously condemned him for, is not the face that his guards saw. They saw a charismatic and kindly old man. While they were all aware of the evil that he had done, and none ever believed that he was innocent or should be freed, they still guarded someone who was much different. They all went in expecting a monster, only to discover that he was just a man.

The story here is about the twelve young American soldiers, the group that self-deprecatingly named themselves the “Super Twelve”, who had the duty of guarding Saddam Hussein in one of his own palaces during the lengthy course of his trial, right up to his inevitable execution.

The process took well over a year. That’s plenty of time for a group of people to gradually shift from guarded adversaries to respectful acquaintances, if not friends. And that is what happened. Unlike the common perception of “the rich and powerful”, which Saddam certainly was, in his incarceration and forced proximity to these soldiers he acted as a respectful and respected guest, and was treated for the most part accordingly. What small freedoms and little comforts could be provided to the old man, they did. And he appreciated them.

This book is about the relationship that formed among this isolated group. The Super Twelve, the medic who monitored Saddam’s health, the interrogators, and Saddam Hussein. Their camaderie with the prisoner seems odd to the reader, but yet it makes sense. Not only were they all stuck with each other, but they were prohibited from telling anyone what their duty assignment was. The only people they could talk to were each other.

And their prisoner.

Reality Rating A-: This is a hard book to describe, but a surprisingly easy one to get lost in. There are a lot of things packed into this slim volume, and all of them are thought-provoking in one way or another.

It is not really a surprise that the guards became friendly with the prisoner. Or not as the story turned out. If Saddam had been a demanding dictator within the limits of his confinement, the guards would probably have maintained their distance even over the extended time period. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he treated his guards with respect and even affection, and both the respect and affection were returned. They all knew what he’d done, but it didn’t have an effect on his treatment of them or theirs of him.

Instead, many of the guards felt as if this was the first time in Saddam’s life when he was safe. Ironically so, but still, safe. Whether or not he deceived himself about the inevitability of his execution, he was absolutely certain that none of his guards were going to kill him in his sleep – something that had not been true for his entire life. That lack of paranoia led to a lot better rest and attitude – possibly for everyone.

The author does detail enough of Saddam’s atrocities, and there were many, to make the reader certain that the man was the author of countless heinous acts. Even though he may not have seen them as anything more than necessary to cement and maintain his power, there is never any doubt that he was a brutal dictator who used fear and cruelty as potent and effective weapons.

Which does not affect the doubts of any of the soldiers, or of the reader. Not that he deserved death, but, to quote another influential character, “Deserves [death], I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Even as the trial is being conducted, the sectarian violence in Iraq not only continues, but escalates. Even from the soldiers’ limited perspective, there does not seem to have been a plan for what was to happen after Saddam’s capture. And the manner of his execution only feeds the violence. One of the questions that lingers is whether or not the invasion made anything better. War is easy. Hell, but easy. Regime change, on the other hand, while it is also hell, is damn hard. Especially on the people whose regime is being changed.

What we’re left with is the aftermath, not just for the country of Iraq, but on a personal level for those men who guarded and lived with Saddam Hussein in his final months. Watching a man that they had all developed relationships with go to his death punched an unexpected hole in all their lives. Being forced to stand by while his corpse was desecrated made them all sick and heartsore.

Saddam may have died, but none of them recovered. And their reaction haunts me.

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina WillnerForty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, history, nonfiction
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on October 4th 2016
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In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.
In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.
A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.
Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

My Review:

Forty Autumns is a very personal story. It is one woman’s account of the history of her own family, separated by the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe in general and Germany in particular post-World War II. While it may be possible to generalize from this one woman’s family to the history of East Germany as a Soviet-bloc country and to the circumstances of many families that were kept apart over those forty years, the power in this story comes from that personal touch. We feel for the author, her mother, and her family because it is easy to see ourselves in their shoes. On both sides of that impenetrable wall.

This is a story of courage across generations. It is easy to see the courage of the author’s mother Hanna, a young woman who took her life in her hands and literally ran across the border before it turned into deadly barbed-wire – with gun towers. But there was also courage in staying. Hanna’s mother, Oma, exhibited that kind of courage, as she strove to keep her family together and keep them from turning on each other, as so many families did, during the long dark years when the Secret Police seemed to have a spy in every house and every factory.

And it is, in the end, a story of survival. Because the family, on both sides of that once formidable divide, remained intact in spite of the dictatorial regime’s best and worst efforts. This is their personal story of that long, twilight struggle. And it’s marvelous.

Reality Rating A: Forty Autumns turned out to be a book that I just plain liked. I fell into the author’s story, and found myself picking it up at odd moments and sticking with it at points where I only intended to read a chapter, which turned into two, then three, without my being aware of it. The prose is spare, and it simply works, even though I’m having a difficult time articulating exactly why.

Forty Autumns also reminds me of two books I read recently. The history it contains reads like a nonfictional account of the history that is also covered by the marvelous, but fictional, On the Sickle’s Edge. Both are stories about families that are separated by the Soviet regime, and detail the ways that those trapped behind the Iron Curtain manage to survive even the harshest repression with just a little bit of hope.

It also touches a bit on the history in Sons and Soldiers. It felt obvious, at least to this reader, that the American G.I. that Hanna marries, the author’s father, was one of the “Richter Boys” whose history is outlined in that book.

This is very much a story about women – their courage, their tenacity, their perseverance. In this family, it is the women who cling to love and hope when all seems lost, as it so often does. This is a story that takes the political and makes it compellingly personal. Through the author’s story of her family, we get a glimmer of understanding of what life was like during those very dark years.

Part of what made this so readable is the way that the author managed to bring out the experiences of both sides of this struggle. So often, this kind of story is told only from the perspective of those who made it out, while those who were left behind recede into the shadows.

That is not the case here. Instead, we see Hanna’s struggle to make a place and a life for herself alone in the west, while the family she left behind struggles equally if differently to survive repression and stay together, with the State always looking over their shoulders, not just because that’s the way it was, but especially because Hanna’s defection left the rest of her family under a life-long cloud.

I found this story to be eminently readable. The author’s prose is spare, but she does a terrific job of telling the story without inserting additional drama or melodrama. There was plenty of both without needing to manufacture any!

In the end, the reader feels for this family, and joins in their triumphant celebration that they made it through, and were reunited at last.

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Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Review: The Great Quake by Henry FountainThe Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction, science, science history
Pages: 288
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in recorded history in North America--the 1964 Alaskan earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and obliterated the coastal village of Chenega--and the scientist sent to look for geological clues to explain the dynamics of earthquakes, who helped to confirm the then controversial theory of plate tectonics. On March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m., the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America--and the second biggest ever in the world, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale--struck Alaska, devastating coastal towns and villages and killing more than 130 people in what was then a relatively sparsely populated region. In a riveting tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain, in his first trade book, re-creates the lives of the villagers and townspeople living in Chenega, Anchorage, and Valdez; describes the sheer beauty of the geology of the region, with its towering peaks and 20-mile-long glaciers; and reveals the impact of the quake on the towns, the buildings, and the lives of the inhabitants. George Plafker, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey with years of experience scouring the Alaskan wilderness, is asked to investigate the Prince William Sound region in the aftermath of the quake, to better understand its origins. His work confirmed the then controversial theory of plate tectonics that explained how and why such deadly quakes occur, and how we can plan for the next one.

My Review:

The heart of the book The Great Quake, is literally the great quake itself. The narrative, based on interviews with survivors and with the geologist who ended up making the quake his life’s work (and a bit vice versa) come literally at the 50% mark of the book.

What comes before and after is a layperson’s guide to the geology that causes earthquakes and the development of the scientific theories that surround earthquakes in specific and the movement of the continents in general. For those of us who remember “plate tectonics” as being settled science when we were in high school, it’s a revelation to discover that it wasn’t settled at all until after the scientists did their deep dives into the study of this particular quake, and all the destruction it left in its wake.

And for those of us who have ever lived in an earthquake zone, the building standards that make it much more likely that we will survive an individual quake, even if all our stuff knocks off the walls, owes its research and development to the study of this particular quake as well.

The Good Friday Earthquake, as it is still sometimes referred to, especially in Alaska, was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. While the loss of both life and property was relatively small in absolute terms, thanks to Alaska’s rather small population in 1964, it still destroyed two towns completely (Chenega and Valdez) and wrecked parts of Anchorage, Seward, Cordova and many others. The tsunamis it generated wreaked havoc along the Pacific coast on both sides of the ocean, down to California on the eastern side and all the way to Japan on the western shore.

And in some ways, its aftershocks are still being felt today.

Reality Rating B: I picked this book up because I lived in Alaska between 2002 and 2005. We lived near Earthquake Park, the land that is left after everything closer to the water dropped and fell in. I worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage on Alaska’s Digital Archive, a statewide project to digitize photographs of the history of Alaska, and if there was one thing that both the UAA collection and the Anchorage Municipal Museum had lots of pictures of, it was the results of that earthquake.

The book itself packs a lot of information about geology and the development of the theory of plate tectonics into settled science into layperson’s language, and wraps it around the story of the quake and its aftermath.

A lot of things changed in Alaska because of the Good Friday Earthquake. The town of Chenega was wiped out. Valdez was too, but because Valdez was on the mainland, and on the road system, and because it is one of the few ports in Alaska that is warm-water all year round, it was rebuilt inland.

The survivors’ stories from both of those places, particularly their accounts of the earthquake itself and the immediately following events, are harrowing and traumatic, and keep the reader riveted to the page.

However, the first third of the book is mostly scientific discussion. It’s all understandable to the non-scientist reader, and it definitely serves as background for what comes later, but there’s not a lot of human interest in that section. It does however talk a lot about the development and eventual proving of, among other things, plate tectonics, and that first third moves at about the speed of, well, plate tectonics.

Once you hit the story where the pork and beans are flying like shrapnel, it’s a wild and rollicking ride from there onwards, and completely absorbing. Readers who have any interest in geology, natural disasters, earthquakes and/or Alaska will find The Great Quake to be a fascinating read.

There’s a stand of trees on the Seward Highway that used to be up on the cliff above. The earthquake dropped the entire stand into the saltwater of Cook Inlet, where they stand today. They are dead, killed by the saltwater they now stand in. But they remain as ghostly sentinels to the power of that quake.

Review: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

Review: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce HendersonSons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 448
Published by William Morrow on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Joining the ranks of Unbroken, Band of Brothers, and Boys in the Boat, the little-known saga of young German Jews, dubbed The Ritchie Boys, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, came of age in America, and returned to Europe at enormous personal risk as members of the U.S. Army to play a key role in the Allied victory.
In 1942, the U.S. Army unleashed one of its greatest secret weapons in the battle to defeat Adolf Hitler: training nearly 2,000 German-born Jews in special interrogation techniques and making use of their mastery of the German language, history, and customs. Known as the Ritchie Boys, they were sent in small, elite teams to join every major combat unit in Europe, where they interrogated German POWs and gathered crucial intelligence that saved American lives and helped win the war.
Though they knew what the Nazis would do to them if they were captured, the Ritchie Boys eagerly joined the fight to defeat Hitler. As they did, many of them did not know the fates of their own families left behind in occupied Europe. Taking part in every major campaign in Europe, they collected key tactical intelligence on enemy strength, troop and armored movements, and defensive positions. A postwar Army report found that more than sixty percent of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys.
Bruce Henderson draws on personal interviews with many surviving veterans and extensive archival research to bring this never-before-told chapter of the Second World War to light. Sons and Soldiers traces their stories from childhood and their escapes from Nazi Germany, through their feats and sacrifices during the war, to their desperate attempts to find their missing loved ones in war-torn Europe. Sons and Soldiers is an epic story of heroism, courage, and patriotism that will not soon be forgotten.

My Review:

The part of World War II history that is outlined in Sons and Soldiers is history that should be more widely known. But just like the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, has been shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Hopefully, Sons and Soldiers will be the first book of many to relate this important and fascinating piece of history, and the story will become as well-known as it ought to be.

Using diaries and interviews from a representative sample of the unsung “Ritchie Boys”, Sons and Soldiers highlights the contributions of a relatively small group of soldiers who had a big impact on the war – just as World War II, its preliminaries and its aftermath had a huge impact on them.

We know what happened in the Holocaust. But one of the things that makes this story so searing is seeing those events from the eyes of those who lived through, not just the camps or the war, but the way that the rise of Nazism broke so many that it touched, even before the concentration camps and mass executions began.

Once a country chooses to dehumanize a part of its citizenry, no atrocity is too terrible to inflict on those people who have been betrayed by that country. While it was certainly scapegoating writ very, very large, powered by a very big lie, the depths of Antisemitism at the root of Hitler’s Nazi Party were always present in Germany and the rest of Europe, just waiting to be plumbed.

The years of the Nazi regime certainly plumbed them to the very depths.

But the stories in Sons and Soldiers, all surprisingly similar, tell a different part of that story. As the tensions ratcheted up, as Germany turned its Jewish citizens into non-persons, many families saw the handwriting on the wall long before Kristallnacht, and certainly after. They tried to get out.

And found that the “Golden Door” beside the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor was only open a sliver, at least for them. The U.S. turned the spigot of immigrants to a trickle, particularly Jewish immigrants, making it nearly impossible for families to come to America. The requirements were such that for many families, they could only get one member out in time. And that was usually the oldest son, to carry on the family name and to have the best chance of getting the kind of jobs that would make it possible for them to bring the rest of their families out – if they had enough time. As we know now, and as their parents expected then, they didn’t.

Instead, those boys grew up in the U.S., with a fierce desire to get their families out of Nazi Germany and to strike a blow against the dictator and the policies that caused their heartache – and that threatened the independence of all of Europe and anywhere they could reach. In spite of a U.S. government that initially saw them as “enemy aliens” (how ironic that was), these young men persevered and the newly formed military intelligence units found their skills invaluable.

Sons and Soldiers is the tip of the iceberg of their stories. These men, trained in advanced interrogation techniques and armed with the knowledge of just how their enemies’ minds worked, provided key intelligence breakthroughs that helped end the war sooner and saved countless lives.

Some of them paid the ultimate price. Most of them only found their left-behind families among the names of the dead. These are their stories.

Reality Rating B: So far, this review has been more about the history than about the book of the history. It’s difficult to separate the two, particularly for me. I exist because all my grandparents got out of eastern Europe in the early 20th century, before World War I. They had enough time to do it the way that these boys hoped to get their families out. One person got here, sponsored by a cousin or distant relative or benefactor, worked hard, paid back the benefactor and sponsored the next one. This pattern held for both the boys and the girls. Any family members who didn’t reach the US or Canada before the door closed did not survive the camps.

So the history of this is fascinating to me. I feel like this is a chapter of World War II history that should be much better known, both because it was so heartbreaking and because it turned out to be so crucial to the end of the war in Europe. Classifying something as “military intelligence” has hidden a lot of such developments that should be brought to light – like the Navajo Code Talkers, the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, and even the Manhattan Project.

But as a book, Sons and Soldiers only skims the surface of what feels like a very deep well of history. There are a lot of “origin stories” for the men profiled in the book. And while it feels necessary to the greater narrative that the reader see the decisions and paths that led each of these men to their part in the war, at the same time those stories are at their heart pretty similar. Each story is heartbreaking in its way, but no one stands out. Maybe in history no one particular man did stand out, but for the purposes of the narrative it would have been more engaging for the reader if the story focused on fewer men but told deeper stories about them.

Likewise, while the section of the story that covers their training and simply the fight that each of them had to get training is absolutely fascinating, the chapters that cover their participation in the war itself feel like a recitation of battles rather than getting into the meat of what these men contributed to the theater of war in which they engaged.

All in all, this reader would have preferred a tighter focus on fewer individuals, with a deeper dive into what those particular participants saw and did and accomplished. But I loved this peek into a piece of history that is not widely known, and have high hopes for future books on these undersung heroes.

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Review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Review: Four Princes by John Julius NorwichFour Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe by John Julius Norwich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on April 4th 2017
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In Europe, 1491 to 1500 was an exciting time to be alive. The entire continent was overshadowed by four rulers, all born within a ten-year period:
King Francis I of France, the most interesting of the quartet, bursting with energy and swagger, was a great patron of the arts and the personification of the Renaissance.
King Henry VIII of England—who was not born to be king but embraced the role with gusto—broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and made himself head of the Church of England.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the civilized world, obsessed with the religious disputes of Europe, was leader of the Spanish and then Roman Empire.
Suleiman the Magnificent, the richest of them all, stands apart as a Muslim, who brought the Ottoman Empire to its apogee of political, military, and economic power, as well as to the golden age of its artistic and architectural prowess.
Never before had humankind seen such giants coexisting. Against the rich background of the Renaissance, they laid the foundation for modern Europe. Individually, each man could hardly have been more different. Their mutual relations shifted constantly: often they were actively hostile and occasionally they were friendly. There was a healthy respect between them; never did one make the mistake of underestimating another. And together, they dominated the world stage.

My Review:

I know that this isn’t quite my usual, but, once upon a time, back when I was about 12, I saw the movie Anne of the Thousand Days. It was a very, very fictionalized account of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. And for some reason, I was absolutely fascinated.

Not by the so-called tragic romance, but by the time period. I was just old enough to develop an intense fascination with history, and for years after seeing that movie I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on about the Tudor period, eventually expanding into the Plantagenets and the early Stuarts.

I also wasn’t too particular about whether the book was fiction or nonfiction. If it was within my reasonable comprehension, I comprehended it. It was also during this time that a friend’s mother gave me a copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, one of those book relationships for which I will be forever grateful.

It was my abiding interest in all things Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart that led me to both Dorothy Dunnett’s sprawling, compelling, immersive Lymond series and eventually to Outlander. For a movie that wasn’t actually all that good, at least according to the critics, it cast a surprisingly long shadow over my reading life.

But I digress.

It’s been a long time since that deep dive into English history, but when I saw Four Princes up on Edelweiss, it just called to me. This was that period, and it looked like a bit of “once over lightly” of both the English history that I remembered so fondly and the greater European history that it touched on but generally did not explore.

And so it proved. I expected to kind of “dip into” Four Princes for the parts I recognized. Instead, I found myself absorbed, reacquainting myself with history I knew, and filling in so much that I glossed over back then.

One of the reasons that history often fascinates, at least part of why it fascinated me, was that it seemed like the right person (sometimes the wrong person) in the right place at the right time could have an immense impact on present and future events. That has often seemed less true in our times, although recent events have shown that the wrong person in the right place at the right time can still have an immense negative impact on the world. But in this very accessibly written history, we see that impact, not just how it occurred but also what it accomplished – and what it failed to accomplish.

We tend to think of kings (and queens) and historical personages in general as old and grey, not because they were born old, but because by the time they are famous and their portraits got painted, they generally were, as the saying goes, in the autumn of their lives, if not downright close to midwinter. As the play Hamilton hints at, while we may remember the U.S. Founding Fathers as old men in white wigs, at the time of the Revolution they were, for the most part, young. Except for Benjamin Franklin – he HAS always been old. 😉

What Four Princes brings to the fore is that in the first half of the 1500’s, the monarchs of the four great powers, England, France, the Holy Roman Empire (which, as we know, was neither holy nor Roman nor exactly an empire) and the Ottoman Empire all came to power within a decade of each other and were all, in fact, born within a decade of each other. Which means they were all young together, all took their thrones young and together and spent all of their respective reigns dealing with each other in particular, and not just that their countries worked for or against each other with different people at the helm each go around.

And for the most part, they all knew each other. Henry of England, Francis of France and Charles of the Empire had all met and were all related to one degree or another. Suleiman the Great was the outlier, most mysterious and least known in Europe – no matter how much or how often he threatened it.

And they each had outsized and long-lasting impacts on their respective countries, if not on each other. In their half century, Henry created the Church of England, Francis began the religious persecutions that stained so much of its history, and both Empires reached the heights of their powers – heights they never attained again.

Reality Rating A: If you have an interest in European history, or enjoy reading history in an accessible style (or honestly, if you know a student who needs to read a relatively short history book that is actually good to read) Four Princes is excellent. It made me remember why I was so fascinated with this period, and has gotten me hooked all over again.