What I’m Reading

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

November 1942 CoverNovember 1942: An Intimate History of the Turning Point of WWII, by Peter Englund – I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and my copy has the margin mark-ups, the underlinings, and the post-it notes to prove it! Englund takes a unique perspective in telling the story of what he argues is the “turning point month” of WWII (and it’s hard to argue with him) — rather than tell a 50,000-foot-view story on the epic nature of the month (Guadalcanal, North Africa, Stalingrad, progress on the atomic bomb, etc.), Englund focuses on individual people around the world and the experiences and hardships they faced. Consequently, there is no overarching narrative that stitches the whole story together — the reader experiences the story along with the shop keeper in Leningrad, the mother in Shanghai, the Jewish worker at Treblinka, the woman factory worker in Savannah, Georgia, and all the others. None has any idea of what is happening to the other as they simply try to stay alive in and make sense of their own worlds. Somehow it all works! Englund took a similar approach in his World War I “intimate portrayal,” called The Beauty and the Sorrow. You need to commit to this book (it’s long and meaty), but you’ll be glad you did!

Lincoln's God CoverLincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation, by Joshua Zeitz – If you’re thinking to yourself, “What else can I possibly learn about Abraham Lincoln?” think again. I marked this book up throughout too and learned a great deal! The story arc traces Lincoln’s skepticism-to-near-evangelicalism about religion. First, he rejected his father’s strict Calvinist rules and became almost agnostic as a result, keeping organized religion at arm’s length and attending church only sporadically, even as a young man. But as he gets closer to and into the Presidency, and considers the issue of slavery, secession, and war, he evolves into a believer and harnesses religion to rally the nation — first to arms and then to abolish slavery (the war, he told Americans, was divine retribution for the sin of slavery). Lincoln made these religious themes the focus of his most important writing and speeches — the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his memorable Second Inaugural.

Killers of the Flower Moon CoverKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann – I’ll admit that I’m late in reading this book, and I’ll also confess that it was the release of the movie that finally drove me to read it. What a story! Grann combines the history of the era (1920s and 1930s) with one of the most chilling crime conspiracies in American history — the murder of wealthy members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma (who became so after oil was discovered under their land). As the death toll rises, the FBI steps in and its young director, J. Edgard Hoover, turns to a former Texas Ranger to infiltrate the conspirators and solve their crimes.


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(Fiction Special) The Murder of Andrew Johnson, by Burt Solomon – I loved this book! But because it’s fiction, I can’t tell you too much about it for fear of giving too much away! Suffice to say that Solomon does a great job of spinning a mystery of President Andrew Johnson’s “murder” (in reality, he was not), a whodunit with a whole host of potential killers. Solomon took a similar approach in his book, The Murder of Willie Lincoln (who wasn’tmurdered either), and I thoroughly enjoyed that too. What I like about this author is the way he weaves a fictional mystery around absolutely accurate history and real-life characters. For example, the person intent on solving the crime is none other than “current” newspaperman John Hay, formerly one of Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries (the book takes place a decade after Lincoln’s assassination) — Hay, a real-life character working to solve a fictional crime. Great stuff! Enjoy!


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).


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December ’41, by William Martin – This is a bonus historical fiction pick! 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.


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).


The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, by Jonathan Freedland – This was a riveting book. In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba became one of the very first Jews to escape from Auschwitz and make his way to freedom. He and his fellow escapee, Fred Wetzler, were among a tiny handful of Jews who ever escaped the notorious Nazi death camp. Rudy and Fred smuggle out the first full account of Auschwitz that the world had ever seen, a detailed report that eventually reached President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and even the Pope. Yet too few heeded the warning. Though Vrba helped save more than 200,000 Jews with his warning, he believed it could have been so many more. Very hard to put this one down — I consider it a must-read.


The Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Michael Schumacher – I’m going to admit that I’m not a fan of the Gordon Lightfoot song, but the STORY of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975 is jam-packed with drama and mystery. To this day, no one is 100 percent sure why the colossal ore carrier plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior in what seems to be mere minutes. Yes, the ship was in the middle of a pounding November storm — complete with gale force winds and 30-foot seas when its radar went out — but it had survived worse. The last words from the “Mighty Fitz’s” captain were: “We are holding our own.” The Fitz sank without a call for help. This book has great history, many personal stories, and in some ways reads like an unsolved mystery — for me it was made all the more poignant because our road trip (summarized above) took us to Whitefish Point, Michigan, and the Shipwreck Museum. The Edmund Fitzgerald was desperately trying to reach Whitefish Point and safe harbor when she went down.


The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II, by Buzz Bissinger – When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, college football was at the peak of its popularity in the United States. As the nation prepared for war, some of the top college players in the U.S. were drawn to the U.S. Marine Corps. Fast forward to late 1944, when the 4th and 29th Marine divisions were training for what would be the bloodiest battle of the war — the invasion of Okinawa. Among the ranks were numerous All-American college players and nearly twenty men who were either drafted or would ultimately play in the NFL. The two regiments decide to play a football game in the dirt of Guadalcanal. It would become know as “The Mosquito Bowl.” Within a matter of months, fifteen of the 65 players in the “bowl” would be killed at Okinawa –by far the largest number of American athletes ever to die in a single battle. I love the way Bissinger tells their stories, the stories of their families, the stories of those who survived and those who did not. I learned a great deal about Okinawa, and the American homefront during WWII as well.


Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls, by Jax Miller – This is normally not my kind of book, but I’m so glad I read it! It’s a combination of true crime, culture, and some history –a cold case from rural Oklahoma that has stumped law enforcement for two decades. It concerns the disappearance of two teenage girls, a murder, a possible police cover-up, and more. Author and crime writer Jax Miller was haunted by the crime, which occurred on December 30, 1999, and went to Oklahoma in 2015 to investigate. What really happened and why was the story still simmering? Her story is woven into the narrative and her personal observations really add to the story’s texture and drama. I read this book fast – you should too.


The Poison Machine, by Robert J. Lloyd (fiction special!) – This fiction special is a great read! It will take you back to 1679 in London, a year since the sensational attempt to murder King Charles II. London is still a viper’s nest of rumored Catholic conspiracies, and of plots against them in turn. In particular — and this is on the dust jacket, so no spoiler alert needed — a plot is uncovered to kill the Queen and all the Catholic members of her court. But where? When? How? You’ll need to read this page-turner to find out. Enjoy!



The forgotten 500The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by Gregory Freeman – This is one of those incredible World War II stories that just never seem to stop, and one about which I knew very little. During bombing campaigns over Romanian oil fields that supplied the Germans, hundreds of American airmen were shot down in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Local Serbian farmers and peasants risked their lives to offer refuge to U.S. soldiers while they waited for rescue — and in 1944, Operation Halyard was born. The starving Americans in Yugoslavia had to construct a landing strip large enough for C-47 cargo planes — without tools, without alerting the Germans, and without endangering the villagers. I won’t say too much more, except that this story was suppressed for more than 50 years for political reasons. Hope that’s enough of a tease to read this book! 


The Watchmaker's DaughterThe Watchmaker’s Daughter: The True Story of World War II Heroine Corrie Ten Boom by Larry Loftis – Staying in WWII, the remarkable story of Corrie Ten Boom, whose heroic efforts saved the lives of hundreds of Jews in occupied Holland, MUST be added to your reading list! Corrie and her family, devout Christians, joined the Dutch resistance and built a secret room in their house to hide Jews and resistance members. She and her sister are finally arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp. But it doesn’t break the courageous Corrie. Miraculously, she survives, and begins a new journey embracing forgiveness and faith. This is another story that will have you wondering: “Could I have acted with the same courage and conviction as Corrie did?”


Checkmate in BerlinCheckmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World by Giles Milton – I didn’t know quite what to expect when I picked up this book — and then I found I couldn’t put it down! The story is about the race to seize Berlin in the aftermath of World War II, and — after the Russians do so — how the German capital is partitioned off among the Allies, and the tensions that follow. The narrative runs through the remarkable Berlin Airlift conducted by the United States and the British in 1948, during which they fed millions of Berliners who were cut off from supplies by Russian troops who encircled the city. This book essentially recounts the first battle of the Cold War between 1945-1949– amazing drama, high tension, and huge stakes — with a profound impact on the modern world. You won’t be disappointed.


The Pale Blue EyeThe Pale Blue Eye (historical fiction special) by Louis BayardIt’s 1830 and a cadet is killed at the relatively new West Point Academy. Former New York City police detective Augustus Lander is called in to discreetly investigate. Any scandal could do irreparable damage to the fledgling institution, so he must tread lightly. He finds help from an unexpected ally — a moody young cadet – a poet named Edgar Allen Poe. That’s all I’ll say. Great historical mystery for you to enjoy this Fall!