What I’m Reading

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


Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, by Elizabeth R. Varon – I made notes throughout this excellent book, which focuses on Confederate General James Longstreet’s course change after the Civil War. Longstreet was always considered “Confederate # 3” behind Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. He fought tenaciously for the Confederacy, including side-by-side with Lee at Gettysburg. After the war, though, Longstreet moves to Louisiana and makes one of the most remarkable about-faces in American history. He supported black voting, led the interracial state militia, embraced Reconstruction, and became an outcast in the South. Many white southerners subsequently blamed him retroactively for the South’s defeat in the Civil War. Varon recounts this amazing story in a strong narrative way, including Longstreet’s ongoing battle to save his reputation amidst withering criticism — particularly with a narrative that he undermined Lee at Gettysburg.


The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation, by Roger Moorhouse – Anytime I start to think I know all of the major story lines about the Second World War, along comes a compelling book to prove me wrong! The Forgers is one of those, dramatically (and for the first time) recounting the story of a group of Polish diplomats exiled in Sweden who, between 1940-1943, engaged in a wholly remarkable humanitarian operation. Working with Jewish activists, they mastermind a brilliant program of forging passports and other identity documents that were then smuggled into German-occupied Europe to save the lives of thousands of Jews facing extermination in the Holocaust. I knew nothing of this effort, perhaps not surprising because this is the first book on the topic. I hope you find this book as engrossing as I did!


The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England, by Julie Kavanagh Call this a story of “historical true crime” told in a gripping narrative, another compelling story in the long saga of Irish-English bitterness. Disrupting a tentative moment of hope between Ireland and Britain, the impact of the assassinations of British officials was cataclysmic it destroyed a tentative peace pact, almost brought down the government, infuriated the Queen, shaped Irish politics for decades, and involved officials in Dublin, London, Paris, New York, and Cape Town, South Africa, among other locations. A long book, but fast-moving and definitely worth your time!


(Fiction Special) Dead of Night, by Simon Scarrow I loved this book! What happens when, one bitterly cold night in Berlin, an SS doctor is found dead in his study from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound? The official determination of the Reich is suicide but the doctor’s wife doesn’t believe it, and at the risk of arrest from the Gestapo, neither does Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke. OK, that’s all I can say except that the real-life history that is interwoven within the story narrative will shock you. Pick up this book as soon as you can, and clear your calendar for some reading time!!


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!