What I’m Reading

Books I think you’ll enjoy (besides mine)…


The ConfidanteThe Confidante: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Helped Win WWII and Shape Modern America, by Christopher Gorham If you haven’t heard of Anna Rosenberg (and NO, she is not to be confused with convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), then you are not alone. Until now, her powerful story hasn’t been told. She served as FDR’s special envoy to Europe in WWII, was instrumental in crafting policies that helped America win the war and prosper afterwards, and served as a high level diplomat and confidante in the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations. Chris Gorham tells a wonderful story and finally gives Anna her due! In the interest of full disclosure, I was proud to have reviewed Chris Gorham’s early proposal, and offer a blurb for this book (and thankful to Chris for his nice acknowledgment).


Land of HopeLand of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay If there’s one thing that bothers me most about how American history is taught (and learned), it’s that we focus on random and discrete ideas and events, and haven’t had an authoritative and compulsively readable book that offers Americans a clear, informative, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Wilfred McClay changes that with this book. His goal was to “provide an account that will inform and deepen their [Americans] sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” He defines citizenship as something larger than the civics-class meaning, but rather as “a vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history — the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of one’s own country.” This book examines the full tapestry of the American experience, in the form of a coherent, dramatic, and compelling story. Doesn’t matter how much American history you know — you’ll find this book valuable and a “keeper” on your shelf.


Ever to ExcelEver to Excel: A History of Boston College, by James M. O’Toole — Time was, if you lived in the Boston area, you either attended Boston College or knew someone who had. Now, that same maxim can be used anywhere in the country — and huge parts of the world. BC has transformed itself from a small commuter school for Irish immigrants, established in the 1860s, to an international powerhouse regarded as one of the best universities anywhere. Jim O’Toole, University Historian at BC and the Clough Millennium Professor of History Emeritus, has written THE history of Boston College that anyone will enjoy. The best way to order this book for you or your “Eagle” of choice is to visit this website. And another full disclosure from me: in addition to being an amazing scholar and a fine writer, Jim is a good friend, and many years ago was one of the reviewers of my UMass- Boston master’s thesis (see item above).


Lightning DownLightning Down: A World War II Story of Survival, by Tom Clavin — I found this book really hard to put down! It’s the story of Joe Moser, and about 170 other Allied airmen who were taken as prisoners and sent to Buchenwald, one of the most deadly and notorious Nazi concentration camps. They endured horrific conditions, and at one point were ordered executed by Hitler himself. I won’t give away any more of this incredible story, but I will say that I consider myself knowledgeable about the Second World War, but never knew that prisoners-of-war were sent to Buchenwald. Read this book when you can give it your full attention — I guarantee that this story will engross you completely. 


The Bullet GardenThe Bullet Garden, by Stephen Hunter Stephen Hunter is one of my favorite authors, especially his novels that feature his serial characters, Bob Lee Swagger and his father, Earl Lee Swagger. This is an “Earl” novel set in WWII, and Earl is tasked with stopping a seemingly unbeatable German sniper who is thwarting the advancement of Allied troops after D-Day. Again, be ready to abandon most everything else as you become totally absorbed in this page-turner — with spot-on history woven into a riveting story! 


Prisoners of thePrisoners Castle Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison, by Ben Macintyre — Wow, did I enjoy this book! Macintyre has a number of compelling books to his credit, including Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zig-Zag, and The Spy and the Traitor, and he’s done it again with Prisoners of the Castle. The Nazis reserved the notorious Colditz prison for the most incorrigible Allied POWs — those who attempted escapes from other stalags, those who engaged in insubordination to their Nazi captors, etc. Macintyre tells this story through the eyes of some of Colditz’s most legendary inmates, as well as the Nazi superintendent who oversaw their captivity. He really delves into life (and hierarchy) within Colditz, and after years of operation, describes the prison’s end game as the Allies descend upon Germany. 


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The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War, by John “Chick” Donohure and J.T. Molloy — Even as you’re reading this book, it’s hard to believe this is a true story, but rest assured, it is! The story is remarkable, with a simple premise: One night in 1967, at a New York City bar, a group of men reflected on the family and friends lost to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Eventually, the bartender proposed an idea: one of them should sneak into Vietnam, track down their buddies, share messages of support from back home, and maybe even share some beer. John “Chick” Donohue, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran working as a merchant seaman, raises his hand — and the story is off and running on an epic adventure. Zac Efron and Russell Crowe are starring in a current movie about this story (see trailer here) — but I’d urge you to read the book first! 


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The Berlin Shadow: Living with the Ghosts of the Kindertransport, by Jonathan Lichtenstein — The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) was the informal name given to the rescue effort that brought unaccompanied refugee children to Great Britain between 1938 and 1940. Approximately 10,000 children, most of whom were Jewish, made the journey from Germany, Poland, Austria, Holland, and Czechoslovakia. One of those was the author’s father, Hans Lichtenstein, who, upon arriving in England, made his way in the world alone, growing up in postwar rural Wales, turning his back on his German-Jewish culture, and never speaking about his ordeal. In this story that is part history and part memoir, Jonathan — who has struggled with his relationship with his father his whole life — convinces Hans to retrace his journey backward to Berlin. It’s a compelling and smooth read, though depressing in many ways. It is hard to imagine the fear Hans must have felt being sent away, alone, at a young age; in fact, if I have one mild criticism of the book, it’s that Jonathan, the author and son, often makes the story too much about himself. Regardless, that does not take away from the story’s impact — this book is definitely worth a read! 



Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris — This is my “historical fiction special” for this edition! I thoroughly enjoy the way Robert Harris unspools a story, and I’ve recommended his work before. His latest novel does not disappoint! In 1660 England, Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, board a ship bound for the New World. They are on the run, wanted for the murder of King Charles I, a brazen execution that marked  the culmination of the English Civil War, in which Parliamentarians successfully battled Royalists for control. But times have changed — ten years after Charles’s beheading the Royalists have returned to power. Under the provisions of the Act of Oblivion, the fifty-nine men who signed the King’s death warrant and participated in his execution have been found guilty in absentia of high treason. Some of the Regicides, or “Roundheads,” such as Oliver Cromwell, are already dead. Many have been captured, hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and a few others are imprisoned for life. But Whalley and Goffe have escaped to Massachusetts — and they are being chased by a relentless pursuer as part of the greatest manhunt of the seventeenth century. Harris fictionalizes a true story brilliantly — read this book over the holidays for a real treat! 



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Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis, by James L. Swanson – I thought this book was brilliant, and as a bonus, it was hard to put down. Swanson (who is the author of a book called Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, about the chase for John Wilkes Booth) deftly juxtaposes the epochal event thatwas Lincoln’s funeral (which he says transforms Lincoln from man to myth) with Jefferson Davis’s escape from Richmond, his dramatic sojourn Southward as he evades Union posses, and his eventual capture and imprisonment. I highly suggest you read this book.



The Great SecretThe Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster that Launched the War on Cancer, by Jennifer Conant – Another real page-turner and a terrific job by the author of meshing two events. The first is the Luftwaffe bombing of the critical Allied port of Bari, Italy (what later became known as “the second Pearl Harbor), including an American ship that was carrying a top-secret cargo of 2,000 mustard-gas bombs. Sailors begin dying of mysterious symptoms, but doctors also discover that the mustard gas has a toxic effect on white blood cells. Mustard gas, both a killer and a cure, becomes integral in ushering in a new era of cancer research led by the Sloan Kettering Institute. Conant shows how a horrific tragedy gave birth to a medical triumph. What a read!



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December ’41, by William Martin – This is my historical fiction pick for this issue! It’s shortly after Pearl Harbor, and a German agent is planning to kill U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the night he lights the National Christmas tree in Washington D.C. The clock is ticking, the thrills and twists are fantastic, and…well, it’s fiction — so I can’t give too much else away. Bill Martin is at his best in this book — his research is impeccable and his narrative is relentless. Read this if you (or anyone you know) enjoys World War II and/or a great spy thriller.



Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your PhonWhy Learn History Covere), by Sam Wineburg – If you’re not thrilled with the way history is taught in our schools (in general, I’m certainly not), this is a must read. Wineburg explores and explains why learning and knowing history is important, but also takes a look at how we can teach students to discern how to use and analyze sources. We are surrounded by more readily available information than ever before, but a huge percentage of it is inaccurate — sometimes wrong though well-meaning; sometimes deliberately deceitful, but pernicious either way. This is not the fastest-moving book you will read this year, but I found it full of important insights about students, teachers, and the “craft” of teaching (and learning) history.