Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 2013 Books

Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda
Published: 2007
Rating: 4

Over the past 9 months I have been reading about WWII and the brave citizen soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperialist Japan.  This month, I wanted to learn more about the person who led the Allied forces to victory in Europe.  I also wanted to learn more about the post WWII era, (i.e. the Cold War).  Both goals were accomplished via two well-written biographies on the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and later, President of the United States from 1953 - 1961: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Bullet points of interest that I jotted down in the front of the book:
  •  he had to deal with prima donna generals like Montgomery (huge jerk) and George Patton.
  •  Love triangle?  Ike, Kay Summersby and Mamie (wife)
  •  Korda makes constant comparisons to the Civil War such as Bastogne-Gettysburg and Ike-Grant.
  •  During the war, he was a huge chain smoker - up to 4 packs a day!
  • He is not buried in Arlington Cemetery, but rather in a small chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas.
Jobs after the war:
  • Leader of US Occupying Forces in Germany
  • Army Chief of Staff (replaced Marshall)
  • President of Columbia University
  • 1st Commander of NATO forces
  • President of the United States for 2 terms
Memoirs to add to the wish list?

By Eisenhower
  • Crusade in Europe 
  • At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends
  • White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961
By Churchill
  • 6 Volume History of World War II

Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen E. Ambrose
Published: 1983
Rating: 4

This is the second Ambrose book I've read - the first was Band of Brothers.  I really like his writing: clear, concise and interesting.  He gives an unbiased accounting of Eisenhower's good and bad decisions as General and President.

What I learned:
  • Nixon was his VP for 8 years.  They had a formal, frosty relationship.  
  • Eisenhower ended the Korean War with an armistice.  He could not see a way to win without WWIII and a battle with the Russians.
  • He did not get sucked into other escalating areas such as Vietnam and Cuba.
  • President over 8 years of peace and prosperity.
  • He did not assert leadership during the Civil Rights Movement (I found this surprising).
  • U-2 incident (spy plane over Russia) which ended in international embarrassment. 
Other Ambrose books to read:
  • D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II
  • Citizen Soldiers
  • The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II
  • Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals
  • The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Published: 1980
Rating: 3

A quick read about a ruthless German spy in Egypt feeding information to Rommel, a British spy-catcher and a beautiful Jewess.

This fictitious account reminds me of his other recently read works: Hornet Flight and Eye of Needle. 

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth
Published: 1972
Rating: 3

This book was referenced in Korda's biography on Ike, so I downloaded a sample, got hooked, bought the i-book and finished in a couple of days.

It is based on the true life account of the post-war activities of a ruthless SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, who set up "Odessa, the escape network for Nazi war criminals".

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Published: 1931
Rating: 5
Awards:  1932 Pulitzer Prize for Novel

I needed a break from WWII and felt hungry for good literary fiction.  I plucked this from my shelves and was hooked from the start.

The first book in her trilogy about the honest, hard-working farmer, Wang Lung and his family in pre-WWII China.  It was a best-seller in 1931 - 1932 and according to Wikipedia, the books apparently helped Americans consider the Chinese as allies in the upcoming conflict with Japan.

The second book of the trilogy, Sons was published in 1932 and the last book,  A House Divided in 1935.

Sons By Pearl S. Buck (# 2 in Good Earth trilogy)
Published: 1932
Rating: 3

As intimated by the title, this book focuses on the three sons of Wang Lung.  In contrast to the round characters in The Good Earth, the sons are flat and one-dimensional; therefore, not as interesting, hence the lower rating.

The social and historical context of pre-World War II China is what makes this trilogy fascinating.  The third son becomes a decorated soldier and with his inheritance, amasses an army and becomes a war lord in the north.  It is a very unstable time period as war lords constantly vie for more land, armies and power while revolution takes root and spreads in the south.

I know nothing of modern Chinese history so will probably read the third book in the trilogy to find out what happens to this family and their country.   I am already starting a list of books to read in the future:

  • Thunder Out of China by Theodore White
  • The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and Birth of Modern China by Hannah Pakula
  • China Marine: An Infantryman's Life After World War II by E.B. Sledge

Audiobook: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Published: 2010
Rating: 5
Author web site

WOW - what an awesome, inspiring story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete (1936) turned US Army Air Force bombardier in WWII.

I did not know anything of this man's life before listening to the audiobook which made it that much more enjoyable.  His story needed to be told and I am glad Hillenbrand stumbled upon it while conducting research for her first book, Seabiscuit. 

What he endured during the war is truly mind-boggling, defies comprehension and elicited many verbal outbursts (OMG, no way, you've got to be kidding me, what? really?), complete with head shaking and slapping of the steering wheel while driving alone in my car.  Anyone viewing must've thought I was a bit loco.

I love Hillenbrand's writing - so clear, concise, strong and vivid.  One would never know she suffers terribly from chronic fatigue syndrome and is therefore completely housebound, living vicariously through her research and writing - read interview.

I've seen the movie Seabiscuit and loved it, but now want to read her book.  I am a big fan and can only hope that she finds another interesting subject worthy of her writing.

Helmet For My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie
Published: 1957
Rating: 5

Another WOW book about a budding, 21-year old journalist Robert Leckie, who enlisted in the US Marine Corp in January 1942 and fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu where he was wounded by a blast concussion and evacuated to a field hospital.   He is one of the main characters in the Hanks/Spielburg HBO mini series, The Pacific.

He decided to write this memoir in 1951 after seeing the Broadway musical, South Pacific, in order to "tell the story of how it really was.  I have to let people know the war wasn't a musical." (wikipedia article).  He accomplished his goal.

A beautifully written literary memoir about how one goes from being a young patriotic man-boy to a well-trained killer/soldier, ready to fight a ferocious and brutal Japanese enemy - for his country, yes, but even more so, for his fellow Marines - esprit de corps.

Some of my favorite passages:
A soldier's pack is like a woman's purse: it is filled with his personality. 
And there is terror, coming from the interaction of trial and tedium: the first, shaking a man as the wind in the treetops; the second, eroding him as the flood at the roots.  Each fresh trial leaves a man more shaken than the last, and each period of tedium - with its time for speculative dread - leaves his foundations worn lower, his roots less firm for the next trial.
Upon seeing a detached hand:
I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone's hand.  "Excuse me," I began to say, but then I saw that it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one.  It lay there alone - open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary.  I could not tear my eyes from it.  The hand is the artisan of the soul.  It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart.  A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive.  To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer a part of a man, no longer his help, was to see way in all it wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal fury of the pride-possessed. 
His descriptions of living and waging war in the jungle are unforgettable.

After publishing his memoir, he went on to be a prolific writer of military history.   The following are ones that I would like to read:

  • Strong Men Armed: The U.S. Marines Against Japan (1962)
  • Conflict: The History of the Korean War (1963)
  • Challenge for the Pacific: 6 Month Battle of Guadalcanal (1968)
  • Delivered From Evil: The Saga of WWII (1987)
  • The March to Glory: Battle of Chosin Reservoir (1990)
  • Okinawa: The Last Battle of WWII (1995)
  • Wars of America (1998)