In popular media’s representation of the American West, and even in the history books, the contributions of many groups are glossed over, and in some cases, even omitted, and while many of these groups have been people of color, some have not. The Germans are but one example. In her book, Looking for Humboldt & Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond, German-American author Erika Schelby fills in some of the blanks. An in-depth look at the contributions of Germans to American development, Schelby’s work goes far beyond the story of Alexander von Humboldt, the man who put New Mexico and the American southwest on the map—an actual map that he presented to Thomas Jefferson—and looks at the intricate and often conflicting relationships among the European powers before the twentieth century and how they impacted the development of the United States.
Seen through the eyes of someone who came to age in a different cultural and educational environment, Looking for Humboldt gives a much-needed fresh perspective on the country’s history that will enhance our understanding of past and current events.
This is not a dry recitation of events, people, and dates, but a lively look at a most fascinating, but little understood, facet of U.S. history. Highly recommended. I give it five stars.
From the brutal and bloody ‘changes of power’ during the Roman Empire, including the mass attack on Julius Caesar, to the senseless killings of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, assassination has been a tool of the greedy, angry, and dispossessed. Sarah Herman, in her seminal work, Famous Assassinations, tracks the history of this particularly brutal method of political expression down through the ages, and how these killings have changed history.
While most Americans are somewhat familiar with political killings—from Lincoln to JFK—there have been other such heinous acts throughout the world, and throughout history. This is a fascinating look at some of the darker chapters of human history that history buffs will find enlightening.
I received a complimentary copy of this book and couldn’t put it down. I give it four and a half stars.
During the American Civil War, Confederate irregulars, known as Bushwhackers, operated in all theaters. Striking sometimes behind Union lines, they destroyed supplies, railroad hubs, and other strategic targets in lightning raids that struck terror into their opponents. Some, on the other hand, were little more than roving snipers or assassins, killing Union-sympathizing civilians as well as soldiers, and sometimes using the cover of the war to settle grievances.
The Bushwhackers: Fighting for and Against the Confederate Guerrilla in the American Civil War is an introductory history of these controversial fighters, using primary sources on both sides to explain who they were and why they fought the way they did. Some of the accounts, such as the history of John McCorkle, a soldier who served as a scout for William Quantrill along the Missouri-Kansas border, or the final entry which gives a history of the Younger brothers, two among those who, after the war took to banditry, seem to romanticize these vicious fighters. On the other hand, accounts of some who were on the receiving end of the bushwhackers’ attentions, show that they could also be completely ruthless.
Wherever your sympathies lie on the issue, this is a valuable volume to read, for it lays bare the horrors of the war of brother against brother in the words of participants like no other history book in my memory has done. Think of them as romantic behind-the-lines heroes or bloodthirsty killers, but these men were an integral part of the Civil War, and in many ways, they not only changed the nature of modern warfare, but put an indelible stamp on the American character.
I received a free copy of this book. I give it four stars.
The Piute Indians (also known as the Paiutes) lived in what is now Nevada before their first contact with whites. According to Piute legend, Indians and whites were once brothers and sisters, but were separated because they could not get along. So, when they had first contact with whites, Winnemucca, the main chief, saw it as a sign that the siblings were to once again be united. That relationship, however, took a bad turn when it transpired that the white expansion to the west was to displace, and in some instances, destroy, the indigenous culture.
In Life Among the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca Parker, granddaughter of Winnemucca, tells the history of this first contact, through the forced removal of the Piutes from their ancestral home to reservations along with other tribes, and the many injustices visited upon the peaceful Piutes by greedy Indian agents and unscrupulous land grabbers.
First published in 1883, this was the first known publication by a Native American woman, and it details Sarah’s life and activities, leading her to become an activist on the East Coast for an enlightened Indian policy. Edited by Mrs. Horace Mann, it retains Sarah’s words and speech patterns, making it all the more profound. Rich in detail and unsparing in its descriptions of the privations suffered by Indian tribes in the face of the inexorable onslaught of westward expansion, it is a must-read for anyone who wants to know the true story of our country’s development.
I received a free copy of this recently published e-book version of this ground-breaking work.
I give it five stars.
George Washington, the first president of the United States, had been written about perhaps more than any other person in American history. Despite this, much of what we know about the man is, in fact, pure myth. The stories we were raised on; the cherry tree incident, Washington praying at Valley Forge; were fictions created by historians long after his death, writers like Parson Weems in the 1800s, who created not Washington the man, but Washington the monument.
In George Washington: Man and Monument, Marcus Cunliffe offers a nuanced of Washington’s life and history that lays bare many of the myths, and attempts to reach the real man who lies beneath. The history of the Washington family, from its origins in England to its establishment of a planter society in Virginia, Washington’s early years, living in the shadow of his older half-brothers, his early military adventures, his command of the continental forces in the revolution, and his taxing years as president.
After reading this book, I can’t say that my understanding of Washington the man is improved, but, I did come away with a better understanding of the milieu that shaped that man.
An extremely well-written and exhaustively researched tome, this should be required reading for every American. Not only will it give a better understanding of where we as a nation have come from, but will aid in understanding some of the confusing political events of the present day.
I received a free copy of this book. I give it four stars.
Edward J. Lowell, an American lawyer and historian with an interest in German participation as mercenaries in the American Revolution, published a book on that involvement in 1884. He outlined the practice, common during the period, of the princes of the German principalities of supplying fighting men to the other European powers—among them, England, which was one of the main customers for such services. The Hessians and the Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War by Edward J. Lowell, has been reprinted in e-book format, making it accessible to today’s readers.
Originally a series of letters, this book explores the historical background, beginning with the fact that Germany at the time was not a unified nation, but rather a loose collection of independent entities, and exploring in detail the German participation in America’s war for independence from Britain.
Written in the linguist style of the period, Lowell’s book gives the previously untold story of the dreaded Hessians, and their failures and successes in the war. An interesting bit of trivia, for example; while the term Hessian was applied to all German auxiliaries, only a portion of the foreign troops were from Hesse-Cassel, but the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, was one of the most formidable of the suppliers of mercenary troops, and thus, the name was applied to all, regardless of their true origin.
For readers interested in the Revolutionary period, this book puts a human face on the war, providing details that are often lacking in standard histories of the period. It should be required reading for any student of history, and is highly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about the evolution of current American-European relations.
I received a free copy of the book. I give it four stars.
For most students of World War II, when Dunkirk is mentioned, the image that comes to mind is the heroic rescue of the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force. Missing from most narratives is the story of the harrowing two months when the BEF, inadequately-equipped and outmanned by the German forces, bore the brunt of the first Wermacht attack against Allied forces.
In Dunkirk: Retreat from the Brink of Destruction, originally published in 1950 as Keep the Memory Green, Ewan Butler and J. Selby Bradford, junior British army officers in France from late 1939 to May 1940, tell the story of the men caught up in the middle of the action. The ground troops, facing German panzer tanks with inadequate weapons, RAF pilots and crews, vastly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe, and navy forces who evacuated troops from Dunkirk under withering German fire. The authors bring the voices of the dead to life, with humor, honor, and a bit of pathos, showing the reader what war is like up close and personal.
This book was meant as a tribute to the forgotten men of the BEF, but it is also a good reminder of the horrors of war. If you like history, this one’s for you.
I give this one five stars.
In most traditional history courses that American students are exposed to, the contributions and roles of women and minorities are often overlooked, or at best, only given cursory mention. Dominique Atkinson’s groundbreaking book, The Women Who Changed the Course of History, changes that in a fundamental way.
From Eve, the so-called Mother of Mankind, to 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Atkinson explores the pivotal role a few remarkable women played, and continue to play, in the world’s affairs.
From Eve’s ‘fall from grace,’ she discusses the origins of the misogynistic male mindset regarding women and their role in society from its beginnings. Eve, who was tempted by the serpent to taste the fruit from the ‘tree of knowledge,’ is characterized as the reason for humanities suffering and the expulsion from Eden. My only complaint about this offering is that the author failed to mention that since Eve was the first to acquire ‘knowledge,’ women had a head start on men in the intelligence department, a fact that is reinforced by the different reactions of Eve and her mate, Adam, to their dilemma. Even as written, however, it goes a long way to making sense of the male reactions to women who broke out of the expected mold over the centuries.
Atkinson offers detailed portraits of several women who, throughout our history, have refused to allow themselves to be pigeon-holed and treated as ‘less than fully human.’ Women like Cleopatra, Marie Curie, Benazir Bhutto, and Hillary Clinton, who, rather than allowing themselves to be defined by men, defined themselves, and in so doing, initiated changes that reverberate long after they’ve gone from the scene.
For anyone who wants an alternative look at the history we’ve been spoon-fed most of our lives, I can think of no better book to begin the process.
I give this thoroughly engrossing book five stars.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by George Long, is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. This compilation of private notes to himself and his ruminations on Stoic philosophy gives a kaleidoscopic view of the Roman Empire during his reign. A hard slog unless you’re a history buff, Long’s use of archaic English (using language reminiscent of the King James version of the Bible) can cause the reader to pause to make sure of his or her understanding of a passage, can challenge many modern readers. Nevertheless, this is an interesting look at a time long past, and is worth the effort it takes to read it through.
I give it a solid four stars.
In 1944 German V-1 and V-2 rockets were raining death and destruction upon London and other English cities. Allied intelligence received information indicating that the Nazis were developing a more powerful rocket, capable of destroying a city block and even possibly reaching New York City. This news inspired a desperate mission; a secret project that involved flying drone B-17 bombers into hardened German sites near the coast of France to destroy the new menace. Volunteer pilots were to get the drone planes aloft and then parachute out over friendly territory. The drones would then be guided to their targets by operators in ‘mother’ planes using a guidance system that had been developed for smaller rockets.
Though ultimately unsuccessful, and designed for a target that did not in fact exist, this highly secret project set the stage for the kind of guided munitions that featured so significantly in wars of this century. But, the cost was high, including the untimely death of Joe Kennedy, Jr., elder brother of John F. Kennedy.
Aphrodite: Desperate Mission by Jack Olsen is a riveting account of the men and the mission. Based upon previously classified Defense Department documents, it reads like fiction, but is an historical account of a heretofore unknown operation in the late stages of World War II. The author cites documents obtained from military archives, and while the conversations are recreations, they have a ring of authenticity and truth, and paint a grittily realistic picture of the horrors of war.
For fans of books about this era, this is a must-read. It gives another look at historical figures, such as James Rand, a major during the war, who later founded Rand Corporation, and James Doolittle, an acclaimed flyer.
This is a book that is just waiting to be made into a movie
Four stars, only because of the unfortunate number of typos in the e-book edition.
From an insignificant village on the banks of the Tiber, by 53 BCE Rome had grown to a sprawling city of over a million inhabitants and controlled an empire. In SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard explores the growth of Rome through a study of documents and historical records, and explains how it changed from a rudimentary collection of huts, narrow alleyways, filth, disease, and death, to a military empire that not only controlled most of Europe and North Africa, but left a lasting legacy that still shapes how we in the Western world understand and view ourselves.
Beard debunks many of the myths we have about ancient Rome, in a style that is neither condemning nor fawning. She examines and discusses documents and relics, as she describes Rome beginning in 53 BCE and how the rivalry between Cicero, a philosopher/poet, and Catiline, a populist/rebel, shaped the Rome that went on to conquer most of the world known to Europeans. She tries to show as many sides of the story as possible from the known records, and makes an effort at objective analysis.
Her description of Roman politics of the era have an eerie resemblance to modern politics, which, when one considers that much of our political terminology comes from ancient Rome, should come as no surprise. A carefully written and thoroughly researched book, it will thrill history buffs, and maybe—just maybe—develop a love of history in those who have yet to discover it.
I received this book as a gift, and have actually read it twice before attempting to review it.
I give it five stars.
Two years ago, I did a series of lectures at a local university on ‘the History of American Diplomacy.’ Over two semesters, I consistently infuriated about half of each class with my thesis that, despite some significant successes over the centuries, American diplomacy is, for a host of historical reasons, rather dysfunctional. My students, from a conservative region, were offended that I would criticize ‘their’ country—ignoring the fact that I’d served for over 30 years as an American diplomat, was an avid student of history, and sort of knew what I was talking about.
The late George F. Kennan, architect of America’s Soviet Containment Policy, and a veteran American diplomat himself, in his book American Diplomacy: 1900-1950, which reproduces a series of lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, agrees with me. While he is less blunt about it (in my lectures I described American diplomats as sometimes being ‘sheep in wolves clothing,’ a blunt terminology the staid Kennan would never use), he does not hesitate to describe the hubris of the US Government as it pursues its foreign policy around the globe, excoriating other countries for behavior that we ourselves are often guilty of, and demanding countries take actions that we refuse to take.
Kennan focuses on the period 1900 to 1950, from the Spanish American War, and America’s brief flirtation with colonization, to the outbreak of the Korean War, and describes in detail the forces that shape the country’s foreign policy, and often significantly impact the methods we employ to pursue that policy. While he is circumspect in his criticism, he leaves no doubt that American diplomacy is a product of a domestic system that focuses on short-term goals, does not make actions conform to ideals, and often takes no lessons from the past.
As we prepare to witness what might be the most historic political transition in American history, one that will have a far-ranging impact (whether negative or positive, it’s too early to say) on our international relations. It behooves us as citizens, then, to understand the factors that, though distant, can impact our lives significantly.
American Diplomacy is a good starting point for understanding how the world really works.
I received this book as a gift. I give it five stars.
Historian Emily S. Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream, traces America’s global expansionism during the first half of the twentieth century. Written in a somewhat dry, textbook style, without footnotes or references, this book looks at the country’s economic and cultural expansion from 1890 to 1945 as it changed from a primarily private endeavor led by American business to one dominated by government.
An interesting book in many ways, but the author gives an unbalanced view, with a bias to the economic aspects and only touching lightly on the cultural. In the introduction the author states that she wants readers to consider if America, in its expansionist mood, fell victim to the same sins as other expansionist powers, but except for slight references to the many contradictions in the American message to the world, she doesn’t offer much to enable a reader to come to any logical conclusion.
For example, when she talks about the great Chicago Exposition of the late 1800s, she points out that America’s prowess in manufacturing agricultural implements was showcased while the over production, land misuse, and crushing debt faced by American family farms was ignored. Nowhere in the book, for example, does she address the stark contradiction between the American cultural message about its exceptionalism and the way it treated women (who make up half the population) or minorities (blacks and Native Americans). While selling the American dream to other countries, it was withholding that dream from a significant percentage of its own citizens. She does point out many of the contradictions in the economic sphere—America pushing for free and open trade while fiercely protecting its own industries—a case of do as I say, not as I do.
Despite these deficiencies, the book is useful to anyone who wants to understand the beginning of American global hegemony. It only needs other material to fill in all the blanks.
I received this book as a gift. For months, I let is gather dust on my book shelf, until the 2016 election and the question of America’s place in the world began to occupy my thoughts more and more. While I was not wildly impressed by it, I’m glad that I read it nonetheless. It gives me a point of departure for further reading and study. I give this book three and a half stars.
Despite a history of discrimination and racism and a current government that is lackluster at best, and mired in corruption, South Africa, according to John Campbell, an American diplomat who served in the U.S. Embassy from 1993 to 1996, during the transition from apartheid to a black-led government, believes that the country’s well-established rule of law will enable it to weather its current crises. In Morning in South Africa Campbell discusses the history of the country, its hot button issues of land reform, health care, education reform, and the economic inequality that persists more than 20 years post-apartheid.
Campbell believes that a closer relationship can be forged between the U.S. and South Africa, to the benefit of both countries, but it must wait for a new government to replace that of current president Jacob Zuma, who as president has made many of the country’s problems worse.
Written from the perspective of someone who represented U.S. interests in the country, but at the same time got to know the culture and society well, this Council on Foreign Relations volume should be required reading for every member of the incoming American administration, but in particular, the new political occupants at the Department of State, not just for what it can teach them about South Africa, but for what they can learn about how American diplomats work to support and defend the Constitution, and on behalf of all Americans, regardless of who occupies the White House. It should also be required reading for all Americans; a primer on foreign relations through the lens of relations with one country.
I received this book as a gift.
I give Campbell five stars for this excellent study.
I thought I knew a lot about the history of America’s race against the Soviet Union to dominate the realm of space. Like many of my generation, I followed our forays into the heavens with as avidly as many of my friends tracked sports statistics. After reading Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, though, I realize that I only knew a part of that story.
With men away fighting the Axis during World War II, American women suddenly found themselves able to work in occupations formerly closed to them. One of the places that opened its doors to women was the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The most compelling part of that story, and one that I was completely ignorant of, was the fact that among the women who were allowed to pass through doors was a group of black women, outstanding mathematicians, who had been teachers in segregated schools. Women like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, ChristineDarden, and Kathaleen Land, who worked as human ‘computers’ in NACA’s segregated West Computer Section at Langley Field in southeastern Virginia.
Hired beginning in 1943 to do manual computations for the program to ensure American flight supremacy in World War II, and working with the nascent space program after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, these women endured segregated working conditions, and discrimination based on both their race and gender, making critical contributions to every element of our eventual victory in the space race, from John Glenn’s first orbital flight to the lunar landing.
Shetterly, a native of the Hampton area of Virginia, offers a straight forward, but compelling, picture of these women and their struggles to prove that they were as capable as any man, in some cases, even more capable, as they encountered and overcome the social and legal barriers placed in their paths.
This is a piece of American history that should be mandatory reading for every American, black or white, male or female. Not only does it bring to light an important part of our history that has remained relatively unseen for decades, but it is a compelling story of the strength of the human will that is a beacon of hope in our current age of political divisiveness and discord.
I received this book as a gift, and it’s one that I will share with my grandchildren. Not just to show them what the past was like, but as a guide to their future.
I give this fascinating book five stars.
Less than 50 years after it gained its independence from Britain, the new American nation faced a crisis. The Barbary states of North Africa preyed upon shipping, taking crews captive and demanding ransom payments and tribute that threatened the infant American economy.
Unsuccessful in its efforts to deal with the pirates through diplomacy, and unable to make the demands for even higher tributes and ransom, Thomas Jefferson, soon after gaining the presidency, chose to demonstrate the new country’s might, and convinced congress to authorize raising a navy and employing it to demonstrate that Americans would fight for the right to trade freely around the world.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Killmeade and Don Yaeger is the story of America’s first war after independence, focusing as much on the unnamed men who fought it at sea and on the ground as on the figures well known in American history. The war against the Barbary pirates is a chapter in American history that gets little notice in history courses, and is largely unknown to most Americans. It is instructive, though, in that it was the first test of the new nation’s prowess, and many aspects of our modern foreign policy grew out of the experiences of this forgotten period of American history.
It reads like a historical thriller, with accounts of those who fought, gleaned from historical documents and journals of people history has largely ignored. A well-constructed book, my only complaint is that the authors display their own lack of full understanding of American diplomatic history in some parts; for instance, John Adams is referred to as the ambassador to Great Britain, when, in fact, the U.S. didn’t post its first ambassador abroad until 1893. A small error that can be forgiven, in view of the fact that most Americans are ignorant of the nuance and detail of American history, but one that the authors or editors should have caught (Adams is correctly identified as minister to Britain in the photo of him inserted in the book. I also took issue with the authors contention that the depredations of the Barbary pirates was based on religion—that they were Muslims was incidental to the fact that they were greedy and like most pirates of that day down to the present were motivated by the desire to profit from preying on those perceived as weak.
These minor irritants aside, this is still an instructive book. It shows the evolution of America’s overseas policy, and the importance of effective leadership, both political and military, in achieving national security and prosperity, and the contributions to our nation that have been made by people whose bravery and innovation in the face of adversity prevails.
I received this book as a gift. I give it four stars.
Since the time the sun never set on the British Empire, and despite having a rather gray and lackluster cuisine, Brits have excelled as travel writers. Tim Severin’s In Search of Robinson Crusoe is but another example of that excellence. An intrepid explorer and excellent scribe, Severin traveled the lands described in Daniel Defoe’s books to see if he could discover the identity of the real life castaway upon whom Defoe based his book, or if it was based upon the voluntary castaway, Alexander Selkirk, as many believe.
Moving back and forth in time, with summaries of the past interspersed with descriptions of his own often hazardous, sometimes hilarious, journeys, Severn effectively debunks the myths, and comes to the conclusion that Defoe based his character upon an entirely different castaway. I won’t spoil the book for you by identifying that worthy. I’ll just suggest you get the book and find out for yourself.
Severn writes in a vivid style, complete with self-deprecating wit that will make this perhaps one of the best travelogues, historical narratives, adventure books you’ll read in a while. I give it five stars!
Sophy Prescott, living with her mother in a small English village, is the village bastard. When her mother dies, her ‘father,’ Lord William Rushford of Fairchild, has her relocated to his home in Cordell Hall, where he finds it hard to relate to her as a daughter.
Fairchild by Jaima Fixsen tells Sophy’s story as she struggles to find love and a place to belong, in a society that puts a premium on pedigree rather than true character.
The author does an excellent job of describing English society of the era, and the characters of all classes that inhabited it. While in some respects a romance, Fairchild is also a bit of historical fiction, with its descriptions of English society. Fixsen has created, in Sophy, a character the reader can easily identify with and root for.. I give it four stars.
I’ve been a fan of Philip Gibson’s Hashtag History series since reading the first. He’s hit another homerun, in my view, with #Houston68 – Apollo 8: The Longest Journey. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review.
In #Houston68 Gibson takes us inside the Apollo 8 mission during those six tense days in December 1968 when NASA conducted the first manned Lunar mission through the medium of social media, to wit, Twitter. Through a series of ‘live’ tweets, beginning on May 25, 1961 when John F. Kennedy said, “We undertake these endeavors, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
All of those involved in the program, from astronauts to flight engineers and mission control on the inside, to Walter Cronkite and other notables on the outside, are shown through actual historical quotes, only as if they were reacting in real time to events. In addition, Gibson puts this mission into the historical perspective of the Cold War by weaving in the Pueblo Incident—the case of the U.S. spy ship crew taken captive by the North Koreans and held for an extended period, who were finally released during this period.
If, like many students, you were bored during high school history classes—and, trust me, you didn’t miss much—you can make up what you missed during those class time naps by reading the Hashtag History series. Another of Gibson’s five-star offerings.
The Settler by Orit Arfa is billed as a historical Middle Eastern romance, but it’s much more than that. It’s the story of how one woman, Sara Dakar, a resident of the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, deals with life after she and her fellow settlers are expelled and the settlement destroyed. Even more, it’s a story of modern Israel, and the question of whether it’s a democratic country or a nascent religious dictatorship.
Arfa takes us through the broad sweep of Middle Eastern politics vis a vis Israel, and a down and dirty tour through present day Israel as it copes with the contradictions and inconsistencies in a society that has seen more than its share of death and sadness as its people seek love and fun.
This is not a weekend read, unless you have a long holiday weekend with no other distractions. It’s hard to put down, but it’s also doubtful that you can get through it in one sitting; it’s just too intense.
Regardless of where you stand on the Arab-Israeli issue or the problem of Israeli settlements, you will enjoy reading this book. In fact, if you want to understand the dilemma that’s the Israeli problem better, I recommend this be one of the texts that you consult. Four stars to Arfa for an interesting read.