Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: The Devil In The White City

Full title: The Devil In The White City - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Vintage Books
Total Pages: 447

What do the 1893 World's Fair and a serial killer have in common?  This is the question Erik Larson answers in his work The Devil In The White City.  Set in Chicago, Larson's book depicts the series of events that brought the fair to the Windy City, while also describing the rise of one of America's most gruesome murderers.

While tackling two very different subjects, this work intertwines the two together quite nicely.  Larson illustrates the difficulties encountered in winning the fair bid and then the arduous task of preparing to host such a monumental event.  At the same time, he also provides the profile and history of a very scary individual, who is determined to continue killing, all the while covering his vile acts.  As if this wasn't enough to engage his readers, Larson continues to draw out other interesting facts and associations of well-known Americans who were somehow associated with the fair throughout the telling of this tale.

From a reading perspective, Larson does a nice job of keeping the sections short, allowing the reader the opportunity to read small pieces, providing good stopping places.  These short sections, of course, can also be read together without losing readability.  The style of writing is very good, allowing for easy reading and absorption of the text.  While the story of the World's Fair does receive the largest amount of attention, the author does a nice job of interspersing his tale of the "devil" in a contrasting way.  This helps keep the story moving.

This book is, as the author admits, more than just the story of a murderer or the World's Fair.  It is also a very telling story of the human condition in Chicago near the turn of the 20th Century.  Well-written and extremely engaging, this book is definitely one worth reading.

Bottom line:

Would I read it again? Yes
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Yes

Review: Not a Good Day to Die

Full title: Not a Good Day to Die - The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda
Author: Sean Naylor
Publisher: The Berkley Publishing Group
Total Pages: 425

Sean Naylor takes readers on a journey into a modern day military operation in this book which, as the title suggests, tells the story of Operation Anaconda.  The goal of the mission, involving primarily the men of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions, was to penetrate the Shahikot Valley of Afghanistan with the intent of capturing senior Al Qaida leaders in early 2002.

From the opening paragraphs, the reader is thrust into the action.  The author does a commendable job of providing ample descriptions of both the combatants and their surroundings, which truly makes the events of the story come alive.  While the reader is placed in the action of the operation in the opening pages, Naylor does take the time to introduce readers to the participants and various military and para-military groups, as well as helping explain the leadership structure for the operation itself.  While at times this becomes a bit cumbersome, it does serve to give the reader a very accurate picture of all the planning and coordination that an operation such as this requires.

Naylor's narrative includes many, many first hand accounts (there is a long list of interviewees included in the book, as well as many government documents, which adds to the realism, in my opinion.  At parts, it is a hard book to read, not because of poor writing (the writing is very good), but rather because of the poor communication between the various groups involved in the operation, which left me feeling very frustrated as I read.  This is not the author's fault - just a consequence of the way the operation was conducted.  On the whole, this work is very educational in helping illustrate how such an operation is conducted.  It is also an inspiring work, allowing readers to see, throughout the conflict, incidents of heroism.  Finally, it is an unvarnished look at a military operation, showing both the good and the bad in its execution.  While this book may not be for everyone (those who do not care for books on military action), it is an engaging read and more than just a mere treatment of another military operation on foreign soil.

Bottom line:
Would I read it again? No
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Yes

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Review: The General & The Jaguar

Full title: The General & The Jaguar - Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa, A True Story of Revolution & Revenge
Author: Eileen Welsome
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Total Pages: 403

While the names of United States Army General John Pershing and the Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa, may be familiar to many, Eileen Welsome's work lays out, in great detail, the events that intertwined the lives of two men.  A town most have likely never heard of, Columbus, New Mexico, and the events that transpired there in early 1916, would forever link these two historical figures.

Welsome begins by describing the political unrest in Mexico that lead to Villa's ascension to one of Mexico's chief revolutionaries.  In doing so, the author also reveals the strained relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as, Villa's motivation for attempting to rally the common man of Mexico against the ruling government.  Ultimately, Villa launches an attack on the U.S., in the small, sleepy border town of Columbus.  After the attack, Pershing was assigned to lead what became know as The Punitive Expedition, traveling into Mexico with the intent of bringing Villa and his men to justice.  

The descriptions, both of the geographic locations, as well as the individuals themselves, are tremendous.  Welsome does a beautiful job of helping the reader visualize the events that took place throughout the book.  The author also does an admirable job of providing the reader with the overall sentiment of the people - both U.S. and Mexican citizens - and their reactions to what transpired throughout the book.  Great attention is also paid to the interaction between the two governments, as well.  As might be expected, the reader is introduced to a large and varied cast of characters.  At times, it does become a bit challenging to remember who is who.  A fair number of maps aid in helping to illustrate the movements of both Villa and Pershing.  Pictures are also included of most of the central characters, as well as the town of Columbus.  The final chapter of the book provides the reader with a summary of the survivors of Villa's raid and Pershing's expedition, outlining the course their lives took following these events.

While I knew of both Pershing and Villa, it was not until I read this book did I realize the connection between these two men.  At the conclusion, I felt I had not just learned about the events involving Pershing, Villa, and the town of Columbus, but that I had also learned a great deal about the history of Mexico and U.S.-Mexican relations during the early 1900s. I always find books like this, where I end up feeling I've learned a great deal more than I know before, to be worth my time.    

Bottom line:
Would I read it again? Yes
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Yes

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: A Bridge Too Far

Full title: A Bridge Too Far - The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II
Author: Cornelius Ryan
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Total Pages: 670

Perhaps better known as a movie bearing the same title, A Bridge Too Far is tale of the struggle of the Allies to reach Germany in an effort to end World War II as quickly as possible.  Their plan calls for an aggressive strategy, capturing and holding a number of bridgeheads that will allow them access into Germany.  The story ultimately centers on the Dutch town of Arnhem and the struggle that was waged there for one bridge.

Ryan begins his telling of this event through the eyes of the Dutch people, who will, in a manner of speaking, host this battle.  From there, he expands to include the German and Allied planning up to the launch of Operation Market-Garden, which will have a major impact both on the war and the Dutch.  The author includes first hand accounts from participant on all sides, including civilians. In his writing, Ryan beautifully recreates the conditions during this time and allows the reader to easily identify with the people he is writing about. As the story unfolds, Ryan moves seamlessly from the viewpoint of one group to another.

Because so much of this story is told within the context of military action and the effort to move large groups of men over vast expanses of territory, the fact that the book contains many, many maps is very helpful to the reader.  Due to the sheer enormity of this battle and Ryan's efforts to provide as much information as possible, the number of people included in the book is quite large.  While it does become a bit difficult remembering who is who (especially two British officers who share the same surname), the book does include pictures of some of the more notable and note-worthy participants, which does help.  One of my favorite features (if you haven't already picked up on this from other entries) included in this book is a comprehensive list of what all those mentioned throughout were doing as of publication.

I came away from this book extremely impressed with Ryan as an author and having learned quite a bit about a part of World War II I was not previously familiar with.  While a tad long, it is an easy, riveting read and another instance in which the movie adaptation truly does not do the book justice.

Bottom line:
Would I read it again? Yes
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Yes

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: Agent Zigzag

Full title: Agent Zigzag - A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Publisher: Harmony Books
Total Pages: 364

It has been said that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. The story of Agent Zigzag is one such instance. Ben Macintyre tells the story of Eddie Chapman, a suave and debonair petty criminal, who began World War II as a prisoner and nearly ended it as one of Britain's top secret agents.

Macintyre takes the reader through the escapades of Chapman the criminal up to his arrest by the Germans. It is shortly after this point that Chapman is recruited, not by his homeland, but by the Nazis to act as a secret agent for Germany. Chapman is sent back to England with orders to sabotage a factory and to record as much useful intelligence information as possible. Upon his arrival, Chapman promptly reports himself to the British authorities as a German spy. Ever the patriot, Chapman volunteers to work as a double-agent, spying on the Germans. With the help of many within the British government, an elaborate ruse makes him appear to have accomplished his mission and he returns to the Germans, who are none the wiser. The book goes on to detail Chapman's time with the Germans and his return (a second time) to England, as well as his tangled love life.

Throughout this work, Macintyre paints an intriguing profile of a man who could be both extraordinarily likable yet decidedly deceitful. This contrast is on display throughout. Written from many first-hand accounts from those who knew or worked with Chapman, as well as Chapman himself, the book contains much research, including an interesting appendix on coding for radio messages. The book also contains an interesting assortment of pictures, both of main characters in the story, as well as prominent locations. Finally, the book concludes with a brief recounting of the lives of the main characters from the end of the war to the present.

While the story itself is, on the surface, an intriguing one, for whatever reason, I had a very difficult time reading this book. I never felt truly engaged in the story or by its characters. While it is well-written, with great description, there seemed to be almost a lack of urgency. There are several points where the plot slowed to a crawl. I did not find myself turning the pages, anxious to see what would happen next. I will admit that it is certainly possible that I entered this book with unrealistic expectations and, as such, also left it feeling unfulfilled.

Bottom line:
Would I read it again? No
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Only to those who are truly interested in espionage and/or British history.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: All The President's Men

Full title: All The President's Men
Authors: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Total Pages: 349

The names Nixon, Watergate, Woodward, and Bernstein are, to many, forever linked in one of the greatest political scandals in American History. This book helps explain how that association came to be.

As two young reporters for The Washington Post, Bernstein and Woodward became involved in covering a break-in at the campaign headquarters of the Democratic Party. Spurred by a casual remark from one of the accused burglars that he previously worked for the CIA, Woodward and Bernstein begin researching these men in an investigation that will lead them across the county. This work of chronicles their investigative journalism, providing readers with a first-hand account of how these two men connected the dots between the break-in and the White House. Full of intrigue, drama, and mystery, this book is still a page turner.

In addition to being an exciting account of the beginning of the fall of the Nixon Administration, this book is also an interesting period piece. It serves as a great reminder that today's 24-hour-a-day news cycle did not exist, and hearkens back to a simpler era, when stories were researched and told using pay phones and typewriters. There are several photographs of many of the individuals involved and includes a "Cast of Characters", which became helpful in keeping track of an ever-increasing number of people, from White House Staff to journalists to attorneys. Despite its age, the book is an easy read and is well-written. Unfortunately, the original book ends before a final resolution was actually reached, which does, to me, leave a feeling of unfinished business (possibly because I do know what the final outcome was). However, it should be noted that a 20th anniversary edition has subsequently been released - this may well enhance the reading experience and may include additional information not originally known when this book went to press.

Whether you are old enough to remember the actual events surrounding Watergate or not, this book offers intriguing insights into both journalism and politics. Don't just watch the movie of the same name, try the book, as well.

Bottom line:
Would I read it again? Yes
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Yes

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: The Amber Room

Full title: The Amber Room - The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure
Author: Catherine Scott-Clarke and Adrian Levy
Publisher: The Berkley Publishing Group
Total Pages: 386

Scott-Clarke and Levy seek to solve one of modern history's mysteries: the fate of one of Russia's greatest treasures, a room made completely from amber. During Germany's invasion of Russia during World War II, this work of art was disassembled and taken to Germany, where it seemingly vanished.

The book covers with a history of the room itself, beginning with the creation of the room itself up to its last days in a Leningrad museum as the Russians frantically attempted to hide it from the invading Nazi armies. The authors intertwine the story of the room with their own research efforts as they attempted to determine, once and for all, the fate of this treasure. Filled with a multitude of twists and turns, their investigation takes them throughout both Russia and Germany. It also offers insights into the Cold War history, as well as the bureaucratic workings, of the two nations.

This book was truly difficult to put down and is written in such a way that makes it very easy for the reader to identify with the authors in their search for any kind of information related to the Amber Room. Scott-Clarke and Levy worked diligently to uncover the truth about the fate of the room and their research is quite compelling and evident throughout. Dead ends and triumphs are both detailed and make the story seem alive.

Covering such a long period of time there are, as one might expect, numerous people who have a role in this story, both those who interacted directly with the authors and those whose association with the room have been historically recorded. The book does include a list of many of these characters, with a brief description, which is helpful as one moved deeper into the book. There are also many pictures of both people and places referenced in this work, which is also quite helpful.

While there are a few brief moments where the story does lag, I found it to be, overall, a very engrossing read. I found myself rooting for the authors to succeed and could not wait to find out what happened to this great work of art. This is a complex work, not only covering the room whose name is the book's title, but also painting an interesting picture of two nations and their post-Cold War conditions. Certainly an enjoyable and recommended read.

Bottom line:
Would I read it again? Yes
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Yes