• The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson **** (of 4)

    the-guns-at-last-lightLike a great general, not a good one, but a great one, Rick Atkinson tracks the final battles for European supremacy as the Second World War ground to close.  Simultaneously, he debates grand military strategies, political realities on several homefronts, and problematic relationships among national leaders like Montgomery (England), De Gaulle (France), Stalin (Russia) and Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander.  And just when you have the big picture and can imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers swinging about the continent, Atkinson has you read the final letter from a soldier in the trenches, an important reminder that war is senseless for young men dying individual deaths.  All the while, again like the general who must track every detail, Atkinson explains how much successful warfare depends on provisioning.  The correct size ammunition must be manufactured in large numbers in a state in the U.S. and then find its way in sufficient numbers to the right gunners facing German sharpshooters somewhere a few hundred miles inside France.  The same is true for warm socks, powdered milk, gear boxes for over-used half-tracks, and petrol for fuel-guzzling tanks.  All of it has to be manufactured quickly (what happens to soldiers on the front if there are not enough laying chickens to produce dehydrated eggs?),  labeled correctly, shipped promptly, and transported efficiently along stretched supply lines.  What if it all goes on schedule, except for the fuel or the gear boxes?  Then nothing else moves.  Atkinson presents a remarkable view of WW II from an observation post that perceives a lot more than just men shooting one another.

  • HHhH by Laurent Binet **** (of 4)

    Reinhard Heydrich, The Blonde Beast, ruled Czechoslovakia for the Nazis until he was assassinated in 1942.  One of Hitler’s favorites — how is it I was unaware of him — he was the model Aryan: tall, physically strong, ambitious, murderous, a founder of The Final Solution, and in charge of subduing a conquered nation.  And yet one Czech and one Slovak parachuted in from England with the intention of killing the highest Nazi official in their occupied country.  The book is a cliff hanger, expertly crafted, originally in French, and translated into English, so the perspective is uniquely European.  The book’s subtitle insists it is a novel, but if it is, the author’s presence as the researcher hunting for the assassins’ stories is so real, it is difficult to imagine what part of the account is fictionalized.

  • Code Name Verity *** (of 4) by Elizabeth Wein

    This is the tale of a irrepressible friendship between two women doing very unusual jobs.  It is World War II and England is barely holding its own as the Germans begin bombing runs over Britain.  Maddie, one of the two women, is a mechanical wizard who earns herself a place in the skies as a highly skilled pilot.  Queenie, the other, is a spy.  Consider how many female spies and pilots you can picture from that era and you have the underpinnings for a lot of suspense with a new twist.  I can’t give away more of the plot without being a spoiler. Ignore the book’s cover and be aware the book is written for Young Adults, but enjoy it.

  • Mission to Paris by Alan Furst *** (of 4)

    Fredric Stahl, a handsome American movie star of Austrian descent is sent by his California studio to Paris to make a movie.  The year is 1939, the eve of Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and ultimately France.  Recognizing the opportunity to advance their political agenda, German spies target Stahl and ensnare him into promoting Nazi propaganda.  The American ambassador in Paris works Stahl as a double agent.  Much of the action takes place in a Paris deep with apprehension and the book provides a fascinating account of the dichotomous French views at the time:  stand up to the Nazis, now and forever vs. a post World War I sentiment to avoid bloodshed and an almost certain whipping before German might.  Bistro dinners, cocktail parties, smoky basement bars, even the damp winter chill of Paris in December are all on full display.  Unfortunately, the book feels like a black and white movie of the era that we have seen before.  The suspense and intrigue that should accompany this kind of book all feel two-dimensional rather than insightful or revelatory.

  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson *** (of 4)

    William E. Dodd, an unassuming, dysthymic, history professor at the University of Chicago finds himself America’s ambassador to Berlin in 1933.  President Roosevelt is battling the country’s worst Depression with little time to focus attention on European woes so Dodd arrives in Berlin largely unprepared for the job with his wife, son, and man-hungry, 20-something year-old daughter, Martha.  The family is ridiculed as incompetent outsiders by the old-boy’s network in the U.S. State Department and largely brushed off by German officials.  Martha has relations with Nazis and Russian communists without her father’s awareness.  The increasingly marginalized William Dodd has the last word on his detractors, however.  First hand witness to Hitler’s ruthless rise to power he declares loudly and clearly that the Nazis are a terror to be reckoned with sooner rather than later.  No one listened.

  • The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt *** (of 4)

    In 2001 Deborah Lipstadt  was brought to trial in Britain for libeling by David Irving in Britain after she described him as a Holocaust denier.  Sitting on the witness defending the experiences of victims and survivors, Deborah Lipstadt recognized the parallels to the last great Holocaust trial.  Nearly 40 years earlier Adolph Eichmann stood inside a glass booth in an Israeli courtroom and insisted his actions were neither criminal nor anti-Semitic.  The Eichmann Trial is an excellent follow-up to Hunting Eichmann as Lipstadt places the trial in historical and global context.  Only 15 years after the end of WWII, Israeli prosecutors called a string of survivors to the witness stand.  The world’s reporters relayed the stories of individual suffering not abstract millions.  Jews the world over, Israelis, and gentiles were forced to ask themselves if they had been Germans would they have had the courage to risk their lives to save others.  If they had been European Jews would they have tried to preserve their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, no matter how slim the chances, by acquiescing, or would they have fought their captors, in an act of certain suicide.  This book dissects the question of what makes a fair trail in a situation like this?  It asks us to think about who we can judge — Eichmann, modern-day deniers — and maybe who we cannot, i.e., those Jews that worked for Germans to rule other Jews rather than defy Germans and die.  It’s a short book, more like a long academic essay that is packed with wrenching ethical questions.

  • City of Thieves by David Benioff **** (of 4)

    Lev Benioff, a 15-year-old Russian, Jewish kid and Kolya, a deserter from the Russian Army with an overactive libido and terrible constipation, find themselves trapped behind enemy lines during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  The two must find a dozen eggs for the commander of the Russian secret service within a week or face execution.  The two will die if they don’t find the eggs for the NKVD or they will die if the Nazi SS captures them.  Kolya is worried about getting laid, taking a crap, and writing the next great Russian novel as they trudge through the snow searching for chickens.  Lev would be happy to just be kissed by a girl.  The SS is all around them.  The story starts slowly.  It all feels too self-consciously assembled like a novel.  By the time I was three-fourths through the book, however, I was flipping pages as fast as I could.

  • Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple

    A journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult memories from urban NY to Austria’s highest peaks in search of Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and “last wandering shepherd of Austria.” Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-semitism in Europe suspensefully and full with satisfaction.

  • Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb **** (of 4)

    Adolph Eichmann, architect, planner, and executor of “The Final Solution” for the Jews escaped to Argentina at the end of the World War II.  It took 15 years before Mossad and Shin Bet operatives for the young state of Israel discovered his whereabouts, kidnapped him, and returned him to Israel for trial.  That trial placed the Holocaust on the world stage.   From the start of the book to its final page Bascomb lets the facts speak for themselves.  Without over dramatization he recounts the words of Holocaust survivors who have become defenders of the new state of Israel.  They explain their plans and the risks required to kidnap a Nazi on foreign soil.  Simultaneously, Eichmann provides his twisted explanation of the need to eliminate the Jewish people.  The Spartan account is chilling and riveting.

  • A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell ** (of 4)

    It chronicles the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of WWII. A very positive review in Publisher’s Weekly, and it was read as “One book, One City” in Erie, but I didn’t finish it. Russell’s research is outstanding, I could feel it on every page, but the plot was well, plodding, and I didn’t learn much after I realized that Italians were not really Nazi supporters in WWII. After that the Jews suffer, Germans are evil, countryside Italians are friendly peasants, and keeping track of all the characters in Russell’s multi-threaded narrative is just a bit too much work. October 2007.