oxymoron67: (Default)
Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires by Justin C. Vovk

Three who lost their throne and one who didn't. )
oxymoron67: (Default)
The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen

In 1836, Helen Jewett, a prostitute, was found murdered in her room at a brothel. A frequent customer, Richard Robinson was arrested and tried for the murder.

Though he likely murdered Jewett, Robinson was acquitted.

This was a famous trial at the time, sensationalized by the early penny press, just developing at the time. In some respects, the crime became its own industry: with pamplets, books and novelizations all based on it.

Jewett herself was a bit of a mystery. Well read and intelligent, she told many different stories about herself. Robinson maintained his innocence.

The D.A. at the time probbly botched the case, but the judge did his share of damage to the case as well. Several other occupants of the brothel remembered seeing Robinson there the nght of the murder, yet their accounts were discounted BY THE JUDGE in his jury instructions, saying that these "fallen women" couldn't be trusted, and their words needed collaboration.

It's a fascinating tale or murder in the early 19th century.

The book, however, is more problematic. It needs editing. The author goes off on way too many tangents. The development of the early tabloid press, for instance, wasn't really a necessary diversion in my mind. She could have shortened that. When it focused on the murder investigation and trial it was really good, and when it wandered away from those subjects, it got really dull and Academic.

So, if you want to read this book, just skip those parts.
oxymoron67: (Default)
I actually recently finished three books and started about seven or so more, but here are my thoughts on one of them:

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith

Everyone what happened to the Romanovs: the immediate royal family was assassinated as were many of the cadet branches. However, the fate of the other noble families hasn't really been discussed much. The author did a great deal of research: searching through archives, pouring over letters and listening to oral history from descendants.

You can see why I'd be interested in this book.

This book focuses on two Russian noble families: the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs. The Golitsyns were a massive family while the Sheremetev family was smaller. Not SMALL, goodness knows, but smaller. As a result, there is a dizzying number of names and places and anecdotes.

I didn't get lost: I have a large family tree, so I could follow along, but I can see how people who don't have my interests/crazy family could get confused.

Anyway, the book itself starts with the years before the Russian Revolution up through World War II. It establishes the dynamic between the nobility and the peasant class and how the Revolution changed all of that.

The attacks on the nobility came in phases: many died during the Revolution and the Civil War, but then life improved during the early 20's. Then it got worse again, then it got better, then the Great Terror then an break, then WWII. As you would expect, the times of the Revolution and the Great Terror were the two worst periods.

What tended to happen is that there would be a wave of persecutions, then the government would realize that they needed the aristocrats because they were the educated ones. Then, after things got settled another wave of persecutions. Many were sent ot internal exile or camps or just taken out and shot.

The aristocrats (and many others) were called former people because they no longer counted.

It was interesting to see how people survived (or didn't). Many fled. The book focuses on those who stayed, so once someone left Russia, they weren't really focused on. Those who stayed learned to deal with waves of persecution. They got so used to having their apartments searched, for example, that they would just go to their kitchens and make tea.

If you are interested in Russia or the time period, this is a fascinating book. It's not for beginners, but it is neat. It;s another of those books that focus on the second of third stringers f history that I find do fascinating.
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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Okay, first off, I bought this for my Kindle, and read it there. I learned a valuable lesson: this baby was over 600 pages long. I wouldn't have bought it had I checked that first.

I mean, yes, Bonhoeffer is one of the great theologians of the 20th Century and one of the few people to stand up to Hitler from the beginning, but I didn't need to know EVERY DAMNED DETAIL.

Other strengths and weaknesses

The completeness is also a strength: it shows the development of Bonhoeffer from scion of an academic family to theologian to someone who resisted Naziism and almost survived.

The book discusses how the Lutheran church ended up being co-opted by the Nazis, which while 'i knew that had happened, I never really looked into it.

However...

The first part of the book meandered a lot. It wasn't until the author started discussing the rise of the Nazis that the book started to have a focus.

The author turned Bonhoeffer into a total Mary Sue. Everything he did was perfect! He had no flaws! God guided him from one triumph to another!

As you can imagine, this got old.

Also, the author had a definite religious agenda: he used Bonhoeffer's work to further the idea that Chirstianity is by its nature politically and culturally conservative, and any attempt to bring liberalism into the equation is wrong.

From what I have read of Bonhoeffer elsewhere, I'm not sure he'd agree with that. He would take the American Evangelical movement to task for a number of things.

If you are interested in reading more about Bonhoeffer, you are probably better off reading one of his books or a different biography. This one? Not so much.
oxymoron67: (history)
Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917 by Laura M. MacDonald

In December of 1917. two ships collided in Halifax's harbor. One of these ships was loaded with EXTREMELY volatile explosives, like picric acid. When it exploded, about a half hour or so after the collision, the resulting explosion was the largest amn-made explosion until the atomic age.

It caused a tsunami as it vaporized a massive volume of water.

The explosion and the waves and (especially) the shock of air that came afterward killed over 2000 people, and wounded 9000 more.

While people were starting recovery efforts, a blizzard hit, paralyzing relief trains. Then torrential rainfall, making everything muddy and hampering relief efforts.

The book itself focuses mostly on the aftermath of the explosion: the recovery efforts, and the fact that the explosion actually led to advances in medicine and in disaster relief efforts.

It's well worth the read, but be forewarned, it;s a longer book, and sometimes the details are a little graphic. I had to skim past a lot of the stuff about eye injuries because... ew.
oxymoron67: (history)
Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

In 1915, The United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA) built a massive fifty foot tank for the storage of molasses in Boston.

It needed this because molasses was fermented to make alcohol used for explosives and ammunition that was sold to the combatants in WWI.

The tank leaked badly from the start, so much so that children in the neighborhood would sneak onto the grounds with pails to collect molasses to bring home.

The demand for molasses increased when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, and peaked in 1918.

In 1919, the tank, filled with molasses failed catastrophically, and 2 million or so gallons of molasses flooded the area, as the tank itself became, well, shrapnel. Twenty-two people died -- the molasses acted like quicksand, people just sank as they struggled and scores were injured.

A three year court case followed.

Set against the backdrop of WWI, the anarchist movement (featuring Sacco and Vanzetti), Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties, this is an interesting read about an event I've never heard of.
oxymoron67: (Default)
The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche by Gary Krist

In February of 1910, a series of nasty snowstorms stranded two trains at the Wellington Station on a cliffside in the Cascade Mountains. Then, on March 1st, a nasty thunderstorm hit and an avalanche wiped out both trains killing about 100 people.

This book used letters (found on some of the victims) and recollections of the survivors to discuss the feelings of the people on the trains. It was a very claustrophobic place because they were trapped there for six days due to the storms.

The railway manager, James O'Neill, worked tirelessly to free the trains, though weather and lack of coal hurt the attempts. Also, the laborers paid to shovel the railways walked off the job due to low pay: 15 cents an hour, but they had to pay for room and board. O'Neill refused to negotiate with them, which is what the railroad management would have agreed to.

This book builds suspense well. Definitely worth a look.
oxymoron67: (history)
Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King

In 1943, police and firefighters responded to a fire on 21 Rue de Sueur in Paris. What they found inside was horrifying: mutilated bodies being burned, others in limestone pits, bones strewn about... and a doctor's office.

Dr. Marcel Petiot owned the place, and was there when the bodies were discovered, but he claimed to be part of the Resistance, and a sympathetic policeman let him go.

Thus started an investigation that would last until after the Liberation and lead to France's Trial of the Century. (Although, if France is anything like the U.S., it probably has a "Trial of the Century" every decade or so.)

The investigation itself was hindered by the occupation and by the liberation, to the point where they almost lost Petiot.

Petiot ran a network (under an alias) that would spirit people out of occupied Paris and into neutral Spain and portugal, where the refugees could then flee to South America. In fact, he was arrested by the Gestapo for running this network. The Gestapo let him go when his family ransomed him.

However, upon closer inspection, it seemed that very few, if any, of the people that entered Petiot's escape network ever actually escaped. Petiot murdered them. When asked about this, he said that all the people he murdered were Gestapo agents, including the Jews he killed.

Petiot was found guilty in after a circus-like trail. (Seriously, he was clearly guilty, but this was not a fair trail, although a good chunk of that was due to Petiot's shenanigans.) Petiot was guillotined for the murder of 26 people, though the body count is believed to be higher than that.

This book moves at a nice pace, though I think it bogs down a bit when it describes the trial. It weaves in the daily life in occupied Paris, including what many of the intellectuals who didn't flee were up to.

All in all, an interesting read.
oxymoron67: (history)
The Rescuer by Dara Horn

Varian Fry was an American journalist and classicist living in Berlin in the 30's, when he was horrified by the Nazi's rise to power.

He returned to the U.S., but, after the fall of France in June 1940, he got involved in a project to spirit artists, scientists and intellectuals out of Vichy France.

When Germany (and after 1938, Austria) became too uncomfortable for major artists and intellectuals, they moved to Paris. Once France fell, they were essentially screwed.

Fry, on behalf of a committee, flew to Vichy France and smuggled many intellectuals out. Once, when Marc Chagallhad been arrested, Fry even managed to get him freed.

Fry's actions irritated the State Department, which was trying to remain neutral at this point. After about a year, he was deported back to the US, where he faded into obscurity. Many of the artists he saved wouldn't give him the time of day.

In 1991, Fry was declared one of the Righteous among the Nations, an award given to those who aided victims of the Holocaust. Heis one of only three Americans to receive this honor.

This book is a quick read -- I did it in two hours-- and not particularly detailed, but it does give an overview of Fry's life and the situation he was in.
oxymoron67: (Default)
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

William Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago in 1933 when fate intervened.

Dodd was a friend of the newly-elected FDR, who was seeking to fill vacant ambassordships. One of the open slots was Ambassador to Germany. Hitler had just come to power in January, and many thought the country in chaos, so no one wanted the otherwise plum position.

Dodd was not a professional diplomat, but he was a historian who had studied in Germany and had an abiding love for its culture and people. Dodd was not FDR's first or even third choice, but he got the nod.

Dodd accepted, though he wanted to finish his massive book The Old South.*

So Dodd, his wife and children moved to Germany. This book focuses primarily on Dodd and his daughter, Martha as, at first, they defend Nazism and Hitler -- things seemed very normal to outsiders for a while-- then, slowly, they realized the fanaticism and horror that surrounded them.

This book is on the level of Devil in the White City and Isaac's Storm. i's meticulously researched and told ina way that builds suspense, especially if you know the history of the era.

Great read.
oxymoron67: (history)
Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagle
The Daughter of France )
oxymoron67: (history)
Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

I like Larson's style... I've read three of his books (Devil in the White City and the one about ship-to-shore communication and a murder whose name escapes me right now)

This book is about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, which wiped out the city and killed 6,000? 8,000? people. It's also about bureaucratic and familial rivalries and how personal lives were ended or irrevocably altered by an act of nature.

I read this book in under two days. IT;s difficult to put down.

Larson alternates between the various level of the story... from how hurricanes form to how this one became so powerful so quickly to the National Weather Service at its birth and its internal struggles as well as its rivalries (the Cuban meteorologists were better with hurricanes) to the everyday lives of those in Galveston.

I've pointed out in other book reviews that just about everyone who could write in the 19th century did. In cases like this (and in The Children's Blizzard), these journals, letters and telegrams provide a vital, detailed fascinating look into the personal cost of tragedy.

If you haven't read this book yet, you absolutely should.

Book review

Jun. 9th, 2012 03:30 pm
oxymoron67: (history)
Cautious Crusade by Steven Casey

Even before the Munich Agreement and the Anschluss, FDR was worried about Hitler.

However, America was still in full-on isolationist mode and, even after the invasion of Poland and the fall of France and the Blitz, still wasn't inclined to get involved in this war.

Americans believed that the oceans would protect them, etc. etc.... if you've read any history of American involvement in WWII, you know this stuff...

This book is about how FDR and his advisors worked on public opinion to slowly accept the idea that the Axis needed to be stopped, and then, once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, focusing public attention on Germany (which FDR thought was the bigger threat) rather than Japan.

The book describes,step-by-step, FDR's policies (and the behind the scenes fights) and public relations (the author cites a lot of public opinion polls) before and during the war. The presidential campaign of 1940 and 44 were especially interesting. The various conferences (Casablanca, Yalta, Quebec, Tehran and Potsdam) are all discussed in some detail.

In fact, since public opinion polls were at the time a new invention, it's instructive to see how they were used.

For a history (and especially presidential history) geek like me, this book is great: it's enormously detailed. This book has been well-researched. BUT... it's not for those who aren't familiar with the time period.

This book assumes that its readers know a great deal about the war itself. Major offensives, victories and defeats are mentioned, but they are background information to the story told here. This is about the politics of war, not the battles.

For those interested in WWII or 20th century history or presidential history, I recommend it. For someone unfamiliar, not so much.
oxymoron67: (Default)
Bradbury was one of my two gateway authors to science fiction.

My brother read science fiction, fantasy and horror almost exclusively while we were growing up. I was reading Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson and biographies and histories. (The latter two should surprise no one.)

One day in my early teens, I was in our basement (where we stored our books) looking for something to read and came across I Sing the Body Electric, a collection of his short stories. I figured that this was perfect: if I didn't like the first story, I could put it down. I wasn't committed to reading the whole book.

I was enthralled. I sat there on the cellar steps that afternoon, reading the book from cover to cover.

After that, I read Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and from there, I started exploring Science Fiction.

So, I owe a debt of gratitude to Bradbury for opening my mind to the genre.

Book Review

Jun. 1st, 2012 12:30 pm
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Crossing Hitler: The Man who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand by Benjamin Carter Hett

Hans Litten was the son of Fritz Litten, a Jewish lawyer and is wife Irmegard, who came from a family of pastors.

Fritz essentially forced Hans, his oldest son, into the legal profession. Hans had definite Communist leanings, but was too individualistic to be able to join the party or any organized movement, really.

Frankly, Hans comes off as a bit of a jackass sometimes.

Hans rose to prominence in the Eden Dance Palace Trial in 1931. A band of SA thugs attacked communists at the Eden Dance Club in the slums of Berlin. He called Hitler to the stand, in an attempt to show that the Nazi party was coordinating SA attacks against opponents across Berlin.

Hitler never forgot nor forgave this.

Over the next two years, Hans Litten was involved in several other trials of SA agents, further infuriating Hitler and the Nazis.

Then... Hitler came to power.

You can guess what happened next.

From 1933-1938, Litten was imprisoned in various concentration camps, where he was beaten, tortured and forced to work. Meantime, his friends and his mother (he and his father were estranged) fought for his freedom, but to no avail. Unable to take the life inthe camps anymore, after five years of abuse and torture, Litten committed suicide in 1938.

It's an interesting read, focusing, as it does, on the fall of the Weimar Republic and its legal system and on how Litten's mother and close friends tried to save him and then had to flee Nazi Germany themselves.
oxymoron67: (history)
I've been averaging about two books a week for the past month or so. Scary.

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Started the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins

In the late Spring of 1897, wrapped up packages of body parts started appearing in New York City. While much of the body was found, the head was missing. They belonged to a masseur named William Guldenzuppe. His live-in girlfriend Augusta Nack and her new boyfriend (who boarded with them for a while) Martin Thorn were charged and convicted of the crime.

This murder fascinated New Yorkers, and the press, led by William Randolph Hearst's Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's World covered every angle... not being afraid to wildly exaggerate or make stuff up. Hearst's reporters scooped Pulitzer's most of the time, Pulitzer's people managed a few surprises.

It was discovered that the murder took place in Woodside (the neighborhood where I live), so the trial took place here. Nack arranged a plea bargain; Thorn was sentenced to death.

After the trial, Guldenzuppe was laid to rest, but, first, thousands paid their respects at a funeral home that had an open casket viewing. No, his head was never recovered. Which was part of the attraction.

The book is a detailed account of the manhunt, trial and punishment of those involved. It also highlights the competition between the major papers in NYC at the time, especially when you consider that, as this case was winding down, the battleship Maine sunk in Havana's harbor, which, with HEarst and Pulitzer fanning the flames, led to the Spanish-American War.

It's not always an easy read...I think we could have been spared some of the details, but it was interesting.
oxymoron67: (Default)
Remember Us by Martin Small and Vic Shayne

Martin Small was born in the town of Maitchet, in Poland in 1917 into a large loving Jewish family.

This is the story of his family life ... and then World War II and the Holocaust.

He lost his entire immediate family, and most of his extended family. Small himself was sent to Mauthausen, one of the worst concentration camps. Small barely survived that, but he did.

Once he recovered, he helped defend Israel in 1948 then emigrated to America, where one of his mother's sisters lived. He lived the rest of his life in the United States.

This book is a very good read. Small doesn't go into what happened at Mauthausen in detail by choice, so while there is discussion of the savagery there ... for instance, the 186 steps from the quarry.

Just look it up.

This was a well-written book. It;s a good read, of a personal story of the Holocaust.

Small started writing this in his late eighties and died at age 92 (of cancer) after it was published.
oxymoron67: (history)
The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America by Geoffrey O'Brien

I love reading about people more screwed up than me. )
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The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem by Nancy Goldstone

I enjoy biographies and memoirs. If you look at what I read here, that should be obvious. In particular, I enjoy reading about the "second rank" of history: the people who were well-known in their lifetimes but whose fame/notoriety has since faded or the also-rans... the folks that could have been big, but weren't.

Joanna I is in the first category.

Her great-grandfather was Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of St Louis IX, King of France. Charles married the heiress of the county of Provence and bought the kingdom of Naples from the papacy.

Through her great-grandfather, Joanna was a descendant of the redoubtable Blanche of Castile and through her, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Both of those women were among the strongest people of their ages, and Joanna followed suit.

Joanna's grandfather, Robert the Wise, was actually the third son of Charles of Anjou. The first died young, leaving a small boy and the second went into the priesthood. Charles, scared that having a minor on the throne would lead to an invasion, put his grandson on the throne of Hungary, naming Robert his heir.

If I may compare royal families, the main problem with the Tudors is that they didn't have enough sons. Charles of Anjou had seven? eight? sons. Providing for all of them led to ugly family politics and constantly shifting alliances.

Before Joanna took the throne, the king of Hungary pressed his claim to the throne of Naples. This was solved by marrying his younger son, Andrew, to Joanna while they were both about twelve.

Several years (and after producing an heir) later,Andrew was strangled. Joanna was accused and was exiled to Provence for a short while. She appealed to the pope and was returned to her throne.

This is just the beginning of her story:of tremendous ups and downs, three more marriages, expansion and contraction of her domains and eventually her downfall. As the ruler of the strongest kingdom in Italy, Joanna wielded quite a bit of power. Yet, she was excommunicated before her death and, therefore, could not be interred in consecrated ground. She is buried in a dry well outside of a convent.

All of this happened in a much bigger European context, with the papacy in exile in Avignon, the Hundred Years' War, the Reconquista in Spain and the rise of Ottoman Turks.

It's an interesting read. Considering that anytime you discuss royalty, you're talking complex family and power relationships, it's as straightforward as it can be. The book is detailed enough, but not too bogged down in detail.
oxymoron67: (history)
Midnight in Peking by Paul French

In 1937, China was a hot mess. There was a simmering Civil War between Chaing Kai-Shek and his Nationalists and Mao Zedong and his Communists. Japan had invaded Manchuria and set up a puppet kingdom, Manchukuo, there. They were also threatening a full-on invasion of China.

Beijing, so close to Manchuria, was abandoned as the capital, which was moved south.

The international community in Beijing lived in its own area, where there was kind of a desperate, forced decadence. They knew bad things were coming, so many partied like there was no tomorrow.

Pamela Werner, daughter of a retired British official who settled in Beijing, disappeared one night and was found the next day, murdered and her body mutilated.

This book relates how first Chinese and British officials tried to solve the crime, then, when they failed, how Pamela's father took up her case, through the Japanese invasion and occupation of the city.

With its twists and turns and its excursions into 1930's Peking's criminal underbelly and the British officials who wanted the whole thing hushes up, the book frequently reads like it would be a great Film Noir.

A fascinating read.

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