The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Will World War II ever cease to fascinate us?  I certainly hope not, nor should it for, clearly, we’re abysmally slow learners.  With The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean brings us yet another story – the Allied efforts to prevent Hitler and his Nazi scientists from developing an atomic weapon.  Or, uh, ahem, at least, to keep them from developing one before we did.  Germany’s Uranium Club versus the Manhattan Project of the US.  Of course, this is not a new story, but, as told by Mr Kean, it is both chilling and oddly charming.  I swear!  Now how the hell did he pull that off?  Like a man with a keen sense of the absurd who knows exactly what he’s doing, that’s how.

First of all, Mr. Kean is a scientist, and a brief course in rudimentary nuclear physics comes with the price of admission, illustrated nicely, thank you very much, in a way that an eighth grader could understand.  Enriched uranium?  Hey, guess what?  I know what that terms mean now, and it was absolutely painless.  Heavy water?  Got that one, too.  In 1940, the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant on an icy, desolate plateau 100 miles west of Oslo, Norway, was the only producer of heavy water in the world, and Hitler’s crew put in their order for hundreds of pounds of the heretofore seldom-sold stuff in January of that year.  (My heart nearly burst with joy when Mr. Kean describes the Vemork officials as being in a state of “flabbergastation” over Germany’s order, and it is my fervent hope that’s actually a word because the Lord knows we need it, but perhaps Mr. Kean was only being tongue in cheek.  He’s more than capable of that, and thank you very much, Mr. Kean.)  Anyway I was “flabbergastated” to learn that it took two dangerous commando raids to remove the existing heavy water supply before the Nazis could get it.  Geez, who knew?  Now there’s a “knowledge knugget” for you, and we have only scratched the surface.

Oddball characters and anecdotes abound, such as Moe Berg, professional baseball player and multi-lingual Princeton man –  first and most unlikely atomic espionage agent.  Madame Curie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot.  The rocky start of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA.  Joseph Kennedy, Jr., eldest Kennedy son, brother of JFK.  Wasn’t he shot down in WWII or his plane crashed – or something?  It exploded, actually, in a bizarre mission constructed from fear of an atomic Germany.  Kennedy, Jr. volunteered, and every plane after his that made the same attempt was lost as well.  I must make myself stop talking about this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it, and I’m just your average grumpy ol’ she-bear.  If you’re a WWII devotee, a science geek, sports fan, second hand adrenaline junkie, any sort of history buff, weaponry aficionado………..just name a niche.  Cross stitch?  Well, hey, OK then, even if there’s nothing for your particular niche, you’ll still love this book.  Betcha.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

After finishing Silver, Sword, and Stone:  Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story, I felt as if I’d been beaten about the head and ears.  The “brutal calculus” of Latin American history simply clobbered me, left me reeling.  Marie Arana calls her book a mixture of history and reportage, and that approach, I think, is what makes it so readable, but her work is massive in both scholarship and scope:  from the Pre-Columbian to the Perons, conquistadores to Castro, Santiago to Pope Francis I.  Its structure and focus are derived from three major currents, co-equal driving forces of Latin American history, identified in the title as silver, sword and stone.

Silver for wealth:  mineral, agricultural, fossil fuels, and drugs.  Sword for violence:  war, conquest, revolution, terrorism, dictatorships, gangs.  Stone for religion:  the Sun God, ancient sacrifices, Catholicism, missionary zeal, political involvement.  All leading to or resulting in weakened extractive societies and exploitation driven by greed.  For each of the three, Ms. Arana weaves in a humanizing touch, stories of three individuals, living examples of silver, sword and stone in today’s Latin America.  Leonor Gonzales is the wife, now widow, of a sick, impoverished gold miner.  Carlos Buergos, a petty Cuban criminal, fought in Angola and was expelled from Cuba when Castro emptied the prisons of “undesirables”.  Spaniard Xavier Albo, a Jesuit priest from Catalan, has served the Church in Bolivia since he was seventeen and is now in his nineties.

To this day there is a cruelly high economic imbalance between rich and poor in most of Latin America and a pronounced arc toward violence and instability.  Latin American countries and cities are often in the majority on lists of the World’s most dangerous. Exploitation and greed, internal and external, historic and current.  Ms. Arana is both fair and thorough in her examination of these volatile parts of our world, and her timely book is a good balance of scholarship and readability.  Effective and affecting.

Available at booksellers everywhere on August 27, 2019. Shop your local indie bookstore to pre-order.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness

That subtitle basically says what needs to be said.  Jennifer Berry Hawes gives us an even-handed look at the horror in Charleston on June 17, 2015.  An atrocity that, for a moment in time and shared grief, appeared to unite us in a complete reversal of Dylann Roof’s avowed hope for race war.  Nine innocent lives are lost at historic Mother Emmanuel, and there is a tenth, lost but not innocent:  the shooter, lost to hatred.  Ms. Hawes movingly recounts the anguish of the families involved, and willingly recognizes that, as human beings, we are all flawed.  In the aftermath, there are those who inspire us with forgiveness, others who struggle, family quarrels, and church schisms because, well . . . humans, you know.  The book offers no blinding insights or solutions to our ongoing struggles, but rather, it serves to remind us of the healing power of forgiveness and, for those who believe, the grace of God.  Oh, wait, did I say no insights or solutions?  Could be I was wrong.  A thoughtful read.

Out today, June 4, from St. Martin’s Press.  Shop your local indie bookstore for a copy.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II

When Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, she was lauded for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”  I can’t say anything as good as that.  I don’t think anyone could.  I feel foolish for trying, but I’ll tell you what I can.  Last Witnesses, originally published in 1985, is without preamble other than a quote and a question:  the one referencing millions of Soviet children who died during WWII on the Eastern Front, and the other (Doestoevsky) asking what can be justified if “at least one little tear of an innocent child will be spilled?”  And then it begins with Zhenya, “June 1941…I remember it.  I was very little, but I remember everything…”.  The remembrances of adults who, as children, survived the German invasion of Russia and the cruel, bitter times that followed.  They ran when told to run.  Hid when told to hide.  Held on tight and were pulled away.  101 survivors are included here, and you will read them all.  They compel.

Children of Minsk, Belarus, orphanages, concentration camps, the Siege of Leningrad, and Gypsies, the forgotten ones.  Galina remembers the dogs and cats of Leningrad, a city starving under siege for 900 days, and thinks there should be a monument to them.  Vera, afraid of men ever since the war, says, “I never married.  Never knew love.  I was afraid:  what if I give birth to a boy…”.  Her whole life, you see.  And Leonid.  After the war, his grandfather returns to the ruins of their cottage and gathers family bones in a basket.  The bones don’t even fill the basket.  Leonid says, “So I’ve told you… Is that all?  All that’s left of such horror?  A few dozen words…”.  A few dozen words from each of 101 survivors.  Svetlana Alexievich understands power and lets it speak.

Random House reissues this testament available on July 2.  Pre-order from your local indie bookstore or from

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel

I’m a Southern girl, me, and I love a stay at a nice hotel, but glamorous New York City hotels have never been a big part of my life.  However, there are hotels, and there are icons – like The Plaza.  Today’s Plaza is actually the second one on the site and opened in 1907, the same year that taxicabs were introduced in New York.  The Plaza.  Let’s do a little name-dropping here.  The first recorded guest – Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  There’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Conrad Hilton, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.  Donald Trump longed to own The Plaza, made a woefully bad deal to get it, and Ivana managed it as their marriage and fortune dissolved.  Hotel as residence was a strange concept to me, but over the years, this grandest of hotels was home to many notable and wealthy folks.  Frank Lloyd Wright was one, and you’ll love the Thirty-Nine Widows who lingered on and on as residents.  Through two World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, New York City’s financial perils, economic booms and busts, The Plaza held on, and its story, as told by Julie Satow, is a wonderfully entertaining one.  Oh, you know who else lived at The Plaza?  Kay Thompson and Eloise!  Visit there or move right on in as you read this delightful book.

Make a reservation for this title at your local bookseller on June 4, or click here to order/pre-order The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotelfrom Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Twelve Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State

Had a sampling good time (admittedly not front to back), and “weirdest state” is the author’s opinion, not mine!  However, we had an aunt in Florida, married several times, who had a dog she named Mister.  It gave her a kick to go to the door and call, “Here, Mister, Mister,” she said.  A little weird, I guess.  Mr. Wright lives in Florida and calls this “…a collection of factoids, oddments, stories, and backstories…”.  I call it fun.  Let’s see.  Florida remained loyal to Britain during the Revolution, so no fourteenth colony.  How “oh wow” rich is that laid back Jimmy Buffet who, we’re told, is Warren Buffet’s distant cousin?  What happened to the Florida of Fifties and Sixties vacations, Silver Springs and glass-bottomed boats, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee?  Did Gore or Bush win the contested 2000 Presidential race in Florida, and how many types of “chads” were there?  Ha, there were four identified and named!  One was a swinging chad.  Didn’t you date him?  Florida is known as the “Road Kill State”, and there’s an interesting flipside.  White-tailed deer kill more humans than sharks, alligators, bears, snakes and insects combined.  A recipe for Tang pie is here too.  Check it out on April 30!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.