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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

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
Goodreads

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.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose HalsonThe Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes; widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and interviews with the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.

My Review:

Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.

The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.

Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.

Not bad strange, just, well, people.

In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.

It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.

A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.

The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.

One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.

Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.

And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.

Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.

Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.

It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.

In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey ToobinAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, true crime
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre "Tania."The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing -- the Hearst family trying to secure Patty's release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing "Tania" wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty's year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the lexicon. The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors' crusade. Or did she?

My Review:

The past, as they say, is another country. They do things differently there.

1974 is definitely the past. Which is something which also feels unaccountably “wrong” at the same time. I was a junior in high school when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. And it seems like a life-time ago – only because it was.

patty hearst SLAThe story of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, conversion, capture and conviction is so wildly improbably that it could only be fact. If someone tried to sell this saga as fiction, it would be rejected as too improbable to be believable. But it really happened.

It’s a very wild ride.

One of the things that struck this reader is just how inept both sides of the equation were. The cops, notably the FBI, come off as much more Keystone Kops than clear-eyed Eliot Ness. It’s not just that they couldn’t catch a break, but that they often didn’t know what break to catch. In hindsight, there were all kinds of clues that weren’t followed up on. This didn’t have to go on nearly as long as it did.

Especially since the criminals were no more ept than the cops. As you read the story, it’s impossible not to be struck but just how often the SLA just got lucky. They may have planned their individual operations down to the details, but there was no overall plan and no major goal to be accomplished. They seem to have been living in a bubble of their own making. And it somehow kept working for them.

Until it didn’t.

The central figure in this story is Patty Hearst herself. So much hinges on figuring out what she really thought and felt. And that’s an unknown, and always has been.

It’s difficult not to put myself in her place. At 19, if someone kidnapped you at gunpoint and locked you in a closet, what would you think when weeks later they offered you the option of walking away or joining up? Would anyone actually believe that walking away was a real option? I keep coming back to that over and over. Expediency says to play along.

The questions, both at the time and now, come back to whether or not she truly believed in the revolutionary cause she ended up espousing. But even if she did, how can anyone say that she truly gave unforced consent to anything that happened? How free was she to choose? We’ll never know.

Which is probably how she managed to receive both clemency from President Jimmy Carter and a pardon from President Bill Clinton. In the end, with Patty controlling the narrative, everyone saw what they wanted to see.

Something that Patty Hearst seems to have been very, very good at playing.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that this book does well is to set the stage. The 1970s are not that long ago, but they are also in some ways very far away. The optimism of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement had not yet faded into cynicism. At the same time, it was a completely crazy era, as the anti-war protests of the 1960s descended into revolutionary fervor and violence of all types. Including lots of bombings and home-grown terrorism.

The cops come off as almost completely inept. At the same time, the criminals were more lucky than smart. One of the things that the author makes clear, but is so hard to imagine today, is that there were no cell phones and no internet. Communication was slow and clumsy, coordination was incredibly difficult. Those are factors which made the criminals lives much easier, and the cops’ jobs much more difficult. Occasionally, that ineptitude feels like it drags the narrative down a bit. Because the bulk of the book is about Patty’s life on the run with the SLA, the length of time she remains free and the inability of the police and the FBI to find and apprehend her goes on and on, because in real life it did.  However, I would have liked a bit more on the trial and its aftermath than is present in the book.

At the end of the book, the questions are still unanswered. Both the question of just how willing a participant Patty Hearst was in the later SLA criminal activities, and also just how much will did she have at that point? It’s ironic that the phrase that most often comes to mind in reference to her case, Stockholm Syndrome, wasn’t in use at the time of her trial because the Stockholm event itself had just occurred in 1973. Was she formally brainwashed? Based on the book, it seems doubtful. Not that the SLA might not have tried, but that they never seemed to have it that much together. Did she have Stockholm Syndrome? That seems much more plausible.

That the questions from the book continue to haunt me says something about the writing. This is a good story. It always has been. There’s a lot of drama, a certain amount of melodrama, and a fascinating use of a kind of sin and redemption trope, as Patty is taken from her good girl life, becomes an outlaw, and then reforms. It’s also a story about where the rich really are different from you and me. No one else in history has ever received both clemency and a pardon. Money still talks.

American Heiress is a compulsively readable account of an utterly fascinating riches to rags to riches story of crime, punishment and redemption.

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason Porath

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason PorathRejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: history, women's history
Pages: 384
Published by Dey Street Books on October 25th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Blending the iconoclastic feminism of The Notorious RBG and the confident irreverence of Go the F**ck to Sleep, a brazen and empowering illustrated collection that celebrates inspirational badass women throughout history, based on the popular Tumblr blog.
Well-behaved women seldom make history. Good thing these women are far from well behaved . . .
Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princesses turns the ubiquitous "pretty pink princess" stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.
An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas.

My Review:

Think of this as the ultimate collection of fractured fairy tales, because this collection is fractured on a number of different axes, all of them worth thinking about.

Also, the whole thing is a terrific hoot. So if you are looking for a slightly ironic and occasionally a bit pained laugh, this book is well worth dipping into. Often.

Many of these stories are based on history, some a bit more loosely than others. And the rest are based in myths that are well-known but have been ignored by Western culture. Why, you ask? Because all of the stories in this collection feature women who acted in various ways outside of the norms that Western history wants to impose upon women.

Every one of the women in these stories lives up to the saying, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” None of these women behaved well, and all of them made history. Even if, or especially because, it’s a history that the entrenched patriarchy wants to bury. After burning.

In case you can’t tell, reading this collection will definitely get your feminist dander way, way up. And that’s a good thing. These stories all need to be told. Because if we want girls to believe that they can be anything they set their minds and hearts to, we need to show them that it is possible to be more than just the few options that all of the media messaging tells them are available to girls and women.

The tone of Rejected Princesses is tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek. Although it reminds me of last year’s marvelous Cranky Ladies of History, the scope is much broader and the stories are much, much shorter, to the point of being vignettes rather than stories. But the Cranky Ladies had an observable bias towards stories with which most of us in Western societies, notably America, are already familiar with.

Porath’s scope is deliberately broader. The intent seems to be to illuminate all of the dusty and forgotten corners of history and legend that are occupied by women, from every continent and every time period. There are stories that feature women in ancient legends from the Norwegian fairy tale Tatterhood to the Brazilian legend of Iara to Xtabay from Mesoamerican mythology.

The historical figures are equally far ranging, from familiar names like Harriet Tubman and Anne Hutchinson in the US and Tomoe Gozen in 12th century China to Andamana in the 14th century Canary Islands and Alfhild in 5th century Denmark. The author has attempted to show the wide and varied range of women in history, from the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the 20th century around the globe.

If you are looking for a female historical figure relevant to any culture, any continent, any race and any era, she’s probably in here someplace, along with her sisters. I think that anyone could find a woman to identify with who relates directly to herself in some or many ways.

Not all of the women are heroes, either. The infamous Elizabeth Bathory is not the only villain featured between these pages. But the focus of the collection is to show the wide range of women in history, from heroes to villains, from slaves to owners, from commoners to queens. We’ve done it all. We just don’t get to see it all reflected in the history books.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is not intended to be definitive. And it is definitely not intended to be an authoritative historical treatise. That tongue-in-cheek style lends itself to a lot of humorous asides and more than a bit of breaking the fourth wall, where the author talks directly to the reader and not necessarily about the subject in hand.

One of the terrific things that the author has added to the collection is an attempt to provide trigger warnings and guide parents to stories that are or are not suitable to a particular child at a specific maturity level. Many of these stories, Elizabeth Bathory just keeps coming to mind, are not for the faint of heart (or stomach) or for a very young audience. An unfortunate number of famous women rose to fame or infamy after an awful lot of abuse of one kind or another, which may make their stories not exactly suitable for toddlers. When the author calls someone’s ex-husband “a crap sandwich” it’s not surprising that the story is not for the youngest audiences.

Based on the story, calling this particular ex “a crap sandwich” may possibly have been an insult to both crap and sandwiches.

But it is incredibly fun. If you are looking for something to whet your own on someone else’s appetite for diving into more women’s history, this is a great place to start. One final note to prospective readers; the illustrations in Rejected Princesses are terrific and often relevant to the story. Not historically accurate, but always interesting. Because of the illustrations, this is one book that is MUCH better read in print. Which also makes it easier to skim, a temptation that is nearly impossible to resist.

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee ShetterlyHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, movie!
Genres: biography, computer history, history, science history, U.S. history, women's history
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

My Review:

Hidden Figures tells an absolutely fascinating story; a story that is all the better for being true.

Once upon a time, a computer was not a piece of machinery. Once upon a time, a computer was a human being, usually a woman, who was just about a genius in mathematics. In spite of the fact that most people believed, rather foolishly, that women weren’t capable of either higher mathematics or professional achievement, this is the story of a group of women who did both, plotting trajectories and engineering airplane designs that led from the battlefields of World War II to the moon.

Although a piece of this story was also told this year in Rise of the Rocket Girls, the struggle for achievement and recognition is even more striking in Hidden Figures. All of the hidden figures in this book were hidden twice, once by their gender, and again by their race.

Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who began their careers, or in some cases re-started their careers, within the segregated confines of West Computing at what is now NASA’s Langley Research Center in Jim Crow era Hampton Virginia during WWII.

It was a job with endless demands, huge requirements and never enough people to fill the positions. During World War II, Langley was THE place for aviation and aeronautic engineering. The space race wasn’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye, even as crazy as the NACA nuts could sometimes be. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was behind America’s superiority in the air in WW2. But to achieve that superiority required hordes of engineers and battalions of human computers to create and confirm mathematical formulas for everything from missile trajectories to drag co-efficients.

Many of those human computers were black women with degrees in mathematics and a desire to either further their careers, make an amazingly good wage for a black woman in the 1940s to support their families, or both.

They faced segregation at the workplace and in the town of Hampton. They created a place for their families and their friends, and a culture of support that made it just a little bit easier for the next black female computer or the next black male engineer to become part of what they all saw as their new home and the place where important work happened.

Hidden Figures is the story of the women who powered the Space Race. Whether by hand and mind, or by electronic computer, they imagined and created, double-checked and rechecked, the trajectories for John Glenn’s famous first flight, Neil Armstrong’s even more famous first moonwalk, and even supplied the Plan B mathematics that helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink of disaster.

Their story of mostly unsung heroism is quietly brave and bravely daring. In an era where women’s contributions to computing, especially the contributions of women of color are harassed at every turn, this is a story that shows just how much is possible if we are willing to work and fight for it.

hidden figures movie posterEscape Rating A-: There are two aspects to my comments. On the one hand, there is the story itself, which is absolutely awesome and needs to be distributed to the widest audience possible. (There’s a movie coming this winter!) This is one of those stories that, if it were not true, no one would believe it. A story of female professionals succeeding despite the odds in a male dominated profession and workplace. The story of black women thriving professionally and personally in the Jim Crow South.

In the way that Hidden Figures captures the numerous double standards that these women worked and lived under, and the way that they saw themselves both as just doing their jobs and as powerful symbols for their race and sex, there are some parallels to the histories told in both Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Defender. These women worked for their families, for their race, and for themselves and their own personal hopes and dreams.

The history of Langley, the Space Race and the opening of doors in Civil Service employment owes much to the struggles that are documented in The Defender. The doors opened because the Space Race, the ending of colonialism in much of the world, and the Civil Rights movement cast a glaring light on racism in America, and on the ways that segregation denied so many the education needed for the U.S. to compete on the world stage, while making a mockery of America’s calls for freedom and democracy elsewhere in the world.

Some things never change.

Because we see this story through the eyes of specific individuals, it is easy for the reader to empathize with both their struggles and their triumphs, whether the reader meets the characters on several axes, or none.

But as work of authorship, this story has a slow start and initially a few too many foci. There’s also quite a bit of information about aircraft engineering that may border on overload. Once the story moves from the NACA era to the NASA era, the narrative picks up steam and the points of view become more focused.

Minor quibbles aside, this is a book for anyone who is interested in the history of women in engineering and computer, the history of the ways that both race and gender impact opportunities in those fields, and the history of NASA and space flight.

Fittingly one of the stories at the end is the famous story of Martin Luther King Jr. convincing Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, not because of what she actually did onscreen, but because of what she represented. She represented the future of all the women portrayed in Hidden Figures, and their dream to reach the stars.