What I’m Reading

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


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! 


Berlin Shadow

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!



December '41 Cover

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.



To Hell and BackTo Hell and Back: The Classic Memoir of World War II by America’s Most Decorated Soldier, by Audie Murphy — I knew of Audie Murphy, of course, one of the most iconic infantry soldiers in all of American history, not just in the Second World War. He received more than 20 medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor during WWII. What I did NOT know is that Murphy is an outstanding writer. His memoir was first published in 1949, and the copyright was re-issued in 1977, but I simply had never read it before. Murphy gives us an up-close and very personal view of combat and brotherhood — his close relationship with his buddies, the randomness of those who live and those who die, the fear, the savagery of the fighting, the cold weather, the hunger, the hardship of sleeping in the elements. All of it. From Sicily to the Italian mainland to France to Germany, Murphy tells it all in this riveting memoir. And think of this: on Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), May 8, 1945, Murphy still had not reached the age of 21. Read this as soon as you can.



A Worse Place Than Hell

A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John MattesonAs I mentioned earlier, Fredericksburg is one of the battlefields Kate and I visited in March. My advice to you: visit the battlefield and then read this book. But if you can’t visit, read the book anyway! Matteson uses Fredericksburg as the lens through which to view five people who change dramatically, which leads to profound changes in the country’s law, literature, politics, and popular mythology. The five are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, chaplain Arthur Fuller, and Confederate artillery expert John Pelham. All five were part of the Fredericksburg experience, and the story Matteson weaves is as compelling as anything I’ve read in a long time. This is NOT a ‘battle and tactics” book (although Matteson gives us enough to set the scene), but rather, a broad look at how these critical three months tested the five individuals whose lives reflect the soul of a nation.




Munich: The Edge of War, by Robert Harris — I love the way Robert Harris writes, and in this book (the first of my fiction recommendations), he outdoes himself. This novel takes us back to the famous Munich conference of 1938 when gullible British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visits Munich to meet with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a desperate attempt to avoid a major war. This would forever be known in history as the “appeasement conference” in which Chamberlain returns and assures his countrymen that Hitler has no intention of full-scale war. Harris tells the story through the eyes of two main characters: an aide for Chamberlain and an aide for Hitler. I won’t say anymore, except to say Harris’s research is excellent, and the story he has woven is better still. A great summer read!



The Murder of Willie Lincoln, by Burt SolomonPresident Murder of Willie LincolnAbraham Lincoln is crushed when his 11-year-old son, Willie, dies in the White House of typhoid fever in early 1862. That statement is historically accurate. But what if Willie was murdered? That’s the premise offered by Burt Solomon, whose novel (my second fiction choice) will keep you up late reading. Lincoln asks one of his secretaries, John Hay, to conduct the investigation of his son’s death. Hay’s main character is compelling. The story takes a number of twists and turns, all within a very accurate historical setting. And I didn’t see the ending coming! (That’s all I can say!)