Tag Archive | non-fiction

Book Review: Lincoln’s Spies

Lincoln’s Spies, by Douglas C. Waller

Yes, I have to admit I’m a bit of an Abraham Lincoln nerd and definitely a Civil War buff.  I like reading about the less told stories of the Civil War, both North and South. 

When I found this book at the Barnes and Noble last year with Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket, I knew I had to get it!

Lincoln’s Spies is as its name suggests, a book about the spies and intelligence gatherers employed by the Union Army, either as paid employees or volunteers.  They ranged from excellent agents of information to corrupt and ineffective, but there can be no doubt that these spies helped the Union cause.

The book explores in depth the intelligence gathered by Allan Pinkerton and his agents; both the good information and the garbage.  Pinkerton uncovered a likely plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way in to Washington D.C. after his election, and they were able to protect the President-elect.  However, Pinkerton was a huge supporter of General George McClellan and provided grossly inflated Confederate troop numbers, which contributed to McClellan’s unwillingness to aggressively attack Lee’s Army and significantly prolonged the war.

It discusses Lafayette Baker, whose intelligence was often more accurate, but concerns about corruption and side schemes to cash in on government payouts tainted his positive contributions.  And most importantly, Baker did not ferret out the plot to assassinate Lincoln in April 1865, resulting in John Wilkes Booth shooting the President at Ford’s Theatre. 

The author devotes time to George Sharpe, one of the unsung heroes of Army intelligence.  He brought accurate information in with a ring of agents working throughout the south.  General Grant came to rely on Sharpe’s reports.

And last but certainly not least, Elizabeth Van Lew.  A Richmond society woman, she supported the northern cause and used her own money to collect intelligence, and to support Northern soldiers languishing in Richmond’s Confederate prisons.  She was paid a pittance by the U.S. Government for her work, which Stanton considered invaluable.  She risked her reputation and her life to continue supplying information, even as the Confederate authorities investigated her.  She was shunned and ostracized by her southern neighbors and died deeply in debt after the war.  She was a true hero.

The author weaves these stories in with the battles of the war, and examined these characters with such depth that they were three dimensional.  They all had their motives and they all had positive and negative attributes, and Waller brought them to life. 

It was well researched and well written, with nearly a third of the book being footnotes and bibliography.  It is not an easy read, but well worth it.

4 stars.

 

Book Review: A Higher Call

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, by Adam Makos

A Higher Call is the true story of two World War II pilots, German fighter pilot and Ace Lieutenant Franz Stigler, and American B17F bomber pilot Second Lieutenant Charles Brown.  These two men fought for separate countries, in a war where brutal losses occurred.

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

The two men’s lives intersected by chance after an American bombing raid on Germany a few days before Christmas 1943.  Both men’s lives were forever changed by a few moments of compassion shown over the skies of Germany.  Neither man could talk about the experience during the war, but each of them remembered it, and decided to try to find each other more than 40 years later.

The book shifts back and forth between Franz and Charlie’s story, detailing their experiences during their childhoods, and the war.  These stories are not for the faint of heart.  Both men witnessed, and were involved in, well, a war.  They watched men shot out of the sky, burned alive, shot while trying to escape, and saw the devastation inflicted upon the civilians in the war-torn countries of Europe and North Africa.  In a word, it was horrific, and there were multiple times I broke down in tears listening to the retelling of their experience.  

If you have any interest in history, or any interest in understanding the complex experience of war, which led one man to show compassion for his enemy, you will want to read this book.  

5 stars. 

Book Review: History Decoded

History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, by Brad Meltzer

Have you ever wondered about the famous events of our history and whether there are conspiracy theories associated with these events?

History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time

Author Brad Meltzer has long held a curiosity about conspiracy theories and reached out to readers to compile a list of the ones that most interested them.  And boy did they deliver!  His book goes into detail on ten different historical events and their associated conspiracy theories, including some that I had never heard of. 

It was really interesting and I learned about the Georgia Guidestones and the mystery surrounding their construction.  What happened to the money from the Confederate treasury at the end of the Civil War?  I also learned about the missing cornerstones from the White House and the Capitol Building and the alleged connection to the Freemasons. 

Other tales included were historical conspiracies that I had heard and read about, including two of the most famous in U.S. history.

Did John Wilkes Booth survive and escape after the assassination of President Lincoln? 

The assassination of President Kennedy is one of the most investigated and documented events in history.  And it is rife with conspiracy theories.  Did JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, really act alone?  And did Jack Ruby, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald a few days later, act independently or was it part of a larger plan?

Overall, I felt this book was a fascinating deep dive into this less explained area of history.  Meltzer did a great job of dissecting each conspiracy theory, presenting the evidence, and discussing where the evidence fell short.  In reality, these are all theories, but who knows, maybe one or more of them will be proven true. 

4 stars. 

 

Book Review: Mayflower

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

It was my turn to choose a book for book club, and I really wanted us to read some non-fiction. So I brought four choices, and this was the one that won.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Mayflower is aptly named, being the story of the Pilgrims and their journey to America in 1620.  The book covers a time span of over fifty years, beginning with their persecution in England, because they chose to break away from the Church of England, believing that it had moved too far away from the tenets they held.  They sought to find a place where they no longer had to worship in private, and first moved to the Netherlands.  While they found religious freedom there, they found life was difficult because they didn’t have land, so they were forced into menial labor jobs. 

102 Pilgrims departed for American in September of 1620, and set anchor off of Cape Cod on November 21, 1620.  Due to their late start, they stayed on the ship for the winter, and didn’t begin to build their settlement until the spring.  Due to an outbreak of disease, and not having enough food, at the end of the winter, only 53 people remained…  They were assisted by the Native Americans almost from the beginning, along with some stores of corn that they found buried nearby and stole (they did eventually replace the stolen corn). 

The book details the establishment of alliances between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, which held for about 50 years.  Unfortunately, eventually these relationships broke down, due to a lot of suffering, mistrust, and treachery.  The result was King Philip’s War, a war that I had heard about but didn’t know much about.  The book goes heavily in detail about the war, the alliances, and the cruelty effected upon both the Native Americans and the settlers. 

All in all, it was a very interesting book, but it was a more challenging read than Philbrick’s other books.  Perhaps it is because of the large number of characters described, with multiple Pilgrim leaders, as well as a great number of different tribes and sachems.  I was also expecting it to be more about the way that the Pilgrims lived and worshipped, and it ended up being much more about the war. 

A good overview, but you will probably need to read other books if you want a more detailed look into the Pilgrims’ lives.

And, by the way, the book club meets on January 14, so we will see how many of them read it!

3 stars.

 

Book Review: America’s Hidden History

America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, by Kenneth C. Davis

You already know that I’m a history nerd.  This book really helps to explore some of the lesser known historic figures in American history.

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The book has several chapters on different time periods in history; between the arrival of the Spanish and the Revolutionary War.  It includes stories about Queen Isabella, who insisted the explorers take pigs along to the New World, which were likely a significant vector of disease.  And George Washington’s pesky little insubordination and war crime in 1754 that led up to the Battle of Fort Necessity. 

The stories about the Revolutionary War were fascinating as well.  We all know about Benedict Arnold and his ultimate betrayal of the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War.  But did you know about the successes that he achieved prior to his treason?  And did you know about his role after he crossed over to the British Army? He led troops for the British against the Americans. 

I listened to this on audiobook, and my only real gripe was the fact that the last CD of the set was a duplicate of the second to last CD.  Which meant that I didn’t get to hear the end of the book!  I was able to download the corrected version from the library and hear the last portion of the book. I emailed Penguin Randomhouse Audio about replacing the last CD; I hope they are willing to send a correct recording of the last disc! 

 

Book Review: The Greatest Battle

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, by Andrew Nagorski

I listened to this on audio CD; it was one that I had picked up from a used bookstore several years ago, but hadn’t listened to.  Sadly, when I was about 2/3rds of the way through the book, I realized that the audio book that I had was missing CDs 8 and 9 out of 11.  Unfortunately, I feel like this might have been the best part of the book! 

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II

The Greatest Battle tells the story of Hitler’s assault toward Moscow in the fall of 1941, as well as the Red Army’s attempt to protect the city.  The author began by comparing and contrasting the backgrounds and styles of Hitler and Stalin.  They were obviously both larger than life figures, but they were also men who had significant similarities in their upbringing.  It was interesting to hear the similarities and ponder whether there was something that could be pinpointed to explain why both men came to power and why they were so willing to resort to such incredible cruelty, even towards their own people. 

The author then explains Hitler’s push towards Moscow; he details the circumstances that gave Hitler an advantage, but also the mistakes that were made that ultimately made the campaign unsuccessful.  The Germans got a late start on their assault, and terribly misjudged the effect of the weather on the roads, and the needs of the troops for warm clothes and supplies.  The mud in the fall, and the freezing temperature and snow in winter severely hindered the army’s ability to complete their mission.

Of course, the Red Army has some major issues as well.  The Russian troops were not well equipped, often sharing a rifle among an entire platoon.  Many of their weapons were outdated or lacked ammunition.  And of course, no story about Stalin’s Russia is complete without speaking of the reign of terror that Stalin inflicted on his own people.  Stalin and the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) often spied on their own people and troops, and severely punished their own people for perceived transgressions.  Stalin literally murdered millions of his own people leading up to and during World War II.  It’s hard to stand up a successful Army when you are assassinating and imprisoning many of your own officers and troops. 

All in all, it was an interesting look into a portion of World War II history that I hadn’t explored much.  I do want to see if I can find a download of the complete book, so I can catch the missing chapters! 

4 stars.  

Book Review: Rush

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, by Stephen Fried

In my quest to learn more about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, I checked this out on audiobook.  I had really only heard Benjamin Rush’s name, and knew almost nothing about him.

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father

Rush had a fascinating career in several roles central to the founding of the United States.  He earned the respect of Benjamin Franklin at a young age, who helped him get into the University of Edinburgh to complete his medical degree.  He already had a Bachelor of Arts degree (earned at the age of 14!) from the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University.  He had also apprenticed in the medical field for several years.

Rush was a prolific writer and wrote extensively both on medical subjects and the politics of the day.  His work as a doctor for many of the members of the Continental Congress opened the door for his own election into the Congress.  He was one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence.  During the Revolutionary War, he was appointed to serve as the surgeon-general for Washington’s Continental Army.  He did create some controversy, as he complained about his colleagues and wrote letters behind their backs, including letters critical of General Washington.

After the war, Rush continued working as a physician and he taught at Pennsylvania Hospital.  He was a pioneer in the fields of medical illness and addiction and was also one of the first people to discuss Savant Syndrome.  However, he was also criticized, especially in later years, for holding on to the ideas of bloodletting and the use of purgatives.

The book is a comprehensive biography of his life and explores his career, his political writings, and his relationships with friends and family in great detail.  I thought Fried did a good job balancing the positive and negative aspects of Rush’s actions and personality.  And I learned so much about this less-known Founding Father.

3 stars.

Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson

As a fan of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln, I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. It did not disappoint!

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

We are all familiar with the story of our 16th President’s untimely death due to an assassin’s bullet in April 1865.  However, do you know the story of the plan that lead up to it?  A plan to not only assassinate Lincoln, but also to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson.  It is believed that General Ulysses S. Grant was also a target of the plot, as he was supposed to be attending Ford’s Theatre with the President that evening.

Of course, Lincoln was the only man killed, shot in the Presidential Box at the theatre about 10:15 pm by John Wilkes Booth, who with dramatic flair, jumped to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and fled.  Booth was well known, so he went into hiding as he attempted to cross the Potomac River and get deeper into Virginia, where Confederates still held territory.

Swanson book documents the plot, the conspirators, and Booth’s flight into Virginia after the assassination.  He uses primary sources to tell the story of where Booth went after he crossed the bridge outside of DC, and why it took twelve long days to pin him down in Garrett’s barn, where the final standoff occurred.  He also weaves in little known stories of the players involved, filling out these important chapters in American history.  Did you know that Laura Keene, the actress in the play that night, made her way into the box after Lincoln was shot, asked and was incredulously granted permission to cradle the dying President’s head in her lap?

For fans of Lincoln, this book fills in some of the gaps of his assassination and the days following, and is not to be missed.

5 stars.

Book Review: White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

This book was a pick from the library audiobook collection; I chose it because it was available and sounded interesting.

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The issue of class in American has existed since the first colonies were established in the 1600s.  Indentured servants were among the very first settlers in the new British colonies, agreeing to long periods of servitude in exchange for the chance at a better life.  Sadly, the life expectancy and risk of death in the colonies meant that many, if not most, of these indentures were for a lifetime.  Indentured servitude was never as widespread as slavery in America, and as a result isn’t as widely known.

The book details issues of class in the United States from those initial colonies up to modern times, discussing the impacts that societal and governmental policies have had on the poor.  Isenberg talks about the role of class in politics, both as a way to get elected, by claiming to be a man of the people, coming up to leadership from an upbringing in poverty, and as a way to control the poor through policy setting.  Lincoln, Truman, Johnson, Clinton, and others are all Presidents who have capitalized on their poor common man roots, some more common than others.

Isenberg explores issues such as the history of words that address class, and how they have entered the modern lexicon, to issues of housing, education and entertainment in depth.  The book is largely about class, but does at times explore the intersections between class, race and religion in the U.S. as well.  It’s often not easy to separate the issues.  Isenberg presents the information in a way that is insightful, and probably as neutral as one could be.

She doesn’t offer solutions to eliminate or lessen the impact of class on social mobility, but she does bring light to a subject that isn’t often discussed or well understood.  It isn’t exactly a scholarly book, but there is a fair amount of compiled research and understanding of the last 400 years of North American history here.  Certainly a worthwhile read, especially in today’s times!

4 stars.

Book Review: Grant

What an incredibly comprehensive Presidential biography!  Grant, by Ron Chernow, tips the scales at 1074 pages (I read the audiobook version), and details the entirety of Grant’s life.  Unlike Grant’s own memoirs, Chernow explores his marriage and family as well as his professional life.

Grant

Grant was a complex man.  He was born to a middle class stable family that was strongly religious and emotionally distant.  Grant excelled as an equestrian and ended up getting an appointment to West Point though his father’s connections.  He was a mediocre student, getting good grades in courses he liked and not doing well where he wasn’t interested.  He graduated in the middle of his class.

He married Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer, after courting her for years while working to get his future father-in-law to accept him.  It was during that time that he served in the Mexican American War, and began to display his skill in combat operations.

Grant floundered for a while after marrying Julia.  His military career took him away from her for long periods, and he didn’t do well on his own.  He began drinking heavily, and there is some evidence that a drinking episode led to his resignation from the Army in the 1850s.  He puttered away unsuccessfully as a farmer, selling firewood, trying to get a civil appointment as an engineer, and finally went to work in his father’s tannery – which he absolutely despised.  It wasn’t until the Civil War began and he went back to the Army that he found his way.  And boy did he ever.

This is likely the part of the story that you know.  Grant rose though the ranks of the Western theater, capturing Fort Donelson and later implementing a successful siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Having caught the eye of President Lincoln, Grant was appointed as the Lieutenant General of all Union Armies.  Rumors of drinking binges continued to haunt Grant from time to time, and multiple people sent stories to Lincoln, leading to one of Lincoln’s now famous quotes, “I cannot spare this man.  He fights.”  Ulysses S. Grant brought the war to a close, accepting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Grant continued as commander of the Army after the war ended, leading the Army’s role in reconstruction in the South.  Reconstruction failed for many reasons, but Grant did everything he could to advance peace and the rights of the former slaves.  He believe more than most at the time that blacks deserved equal rights and the opportunity to vote in the post-war era.

Riding on the coattails of his wartime fame, Grant was elected to two terms as President.  Most believe that his Presidency was mediocre; he ended up being caught in a number of political scandals as a result of his trust in his friends who were participating in a variety of nefarious activities.

Chernow documents Grant’s life thoroughly and he tries to speak of Grant’s strengths and failings in equal measures. He is clearly biased towards Grant though, always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, preferring to think of Grant as an innocent soul who was duped by dishonest friends and political appointments rather than being complicit in their activities.  We will probably never know how much Grant knew.

The only real annoyance for me was Chernow’s obsessive focus on Grant’s drinking.  By all accounts, Grant had largely gained control of his alcohol problem by the time he went back to the Army, and no one ever alleged that Grant’s drinking got in the way of his ability to command his Army.  Yet Chernow seemingly explores every single allegation, acknowledging that they all sounded similar before dismissing most of them.  Whether Grant fell off the wagon or not seems largely irrelevant in the context of his later career and life.

Chernow clearly did extensive research on Grant, reading his letters, military orders and Presidential papers, in addition to researching many of Grant’s contemporaries and what they had to say about him.  He quotes President Lincoln, General Lee, General Sherman, General James Longstreet and many others to round out his descriptions of this great man.

Spoiler alert – as with most biographies, Grant dies at the end…  I cried.  Well done and worth the read.

4 stars.