30 December 2008

WWII Reading Challenge from 'War Through the Generations'

'War Through the Generations' has posted a reading challenge for 2009 focusing on WWII related books. Having just recieved a good-sized stack of new reading for Christmas and having a bunch of "backlog" books to get to, I'm signing up.

I think I'll go on the conservative side and commit to 8 WWII-themed books this year. That will match my 2008 total at least. Stay tuned for updates!

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23 December 2008

Before Valkyrie: Review of "The Oster Conspiracy of 1936"

From GoodReads:
"September 1938. In power more than five years, Hitler unilaterally dismantled the Treaty of Versailles, provision by provision, daring Britain and France to stand up to him. Earlier that year, he forced Austria into his Third Reich without firing a single shot. Now his sights were set on Czechoslovakia.

It was in this dangerous climate that the first anti-Nazi coup was born. The plot was spearheaded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Oster, and its members included top German military leaders, the Berlin police, local troop commanders, civil authorities, religious leaders, and a group of resisters whose names have been wiped from the pages of history. Their mission was to kill Hitler and to overthrow the Nazi regime."

I knew something of this conspiracy from Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" but had no clue how close to pulling the trigger they came.

Whether the coup would have succeeded is a counter-factual that we can never know. That said, from this book it seems that the conspirators had a better shot at not just killing Hitler but also overthrowing the whole Nazi regime in 1938 than Count Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise in Valkyrie) and other later plotters ever had.

Reading about Chamberlain's appeasement policy is always frustrating, especially with Churchill sitting in the wings acting as if he had received a message from the future laying all of WWII out before him. But if you can get your mind into the limited view that these men actually had, you can see the heart-wrenching choices they had to make.

Knowing what WWII would become, the decision is easy. Without that knowledge it is much harder to commit to marching to war or commit to supporting a coup. The amazing thing about the 1938 coup was that this was quite possibly the last moment at which WWII (in Europe) could have been prevented. The Valkyrie plot was seeking to end the war, just to remove an increasingly unstable leader and maybe secure a separate peace with the Western Allies (a peace that was vanishly unlikely in light of Roosevelt's unconditional surrender policy).

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17 December 2008

Phillipine Prison Break -- Review of 'Ghost Soldiers'

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides

From Goodreads:
"On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March thirty rugged miles to rescue 513 POWs languishing in a hellish camp, among them the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. A recent prison massacre by Japanese soldiers elsewhere in the Philippines made the stakes impossibly high and left little time to plan the complex operation."

As WWII non-fiction goes, this book went by pretty quickly. I had read some in passing about the Cabanatuan camp rescue, but I had the relative roles of the Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and partisans a bit muddled in my head. I'm glad the Fillipino guerillas got enough billing in here, such indigenous forces have a tendency to be forgotten by later story-tellers. I was a little surprised to come across the Alamo Scouts in the middle of the book with little earlier discussion of the unit or the massively important recon work they had already done.

The structure of alternating chapters between the Ranger's mission and the travails of the "Bastards of Bataan" works better than I would have thought. The details of life in Cabanatuan and other camps are pretty harrowing. That said, parts of me kept comparing these accounts to accounts from other camp complexes of the time...the life of an American in a Japanese POW camp was a vacation next to the Holocaust, or the Gulag. For the Chinese of cities like Nanking, the mere idea that the Japanese took prisoners would seem absurd.

Am I belittling these men their their travails? I don't mean to. I'm just trying to remind myself that Americans aren't anything astoundingly special that we should face this sort of abuse less than anyone else.

The single best aspect of Sides story is how well he captures the voices of the men involved. Especially when the prisoners speak, I can feel many of the same cadences and turns of phrase that my maternal grandfather used in some of his more unguarded and effusive moments. I can very much imagine him there among Bob Body and Dr. Hibbs and the other men instead of (relatively) safe as crew on a troopship out at sea.

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10 December 2008

Absurd Super-weapons of WWII -- Review of "My Tank Is Fight!"

From Goodreads:
"My Tank is Fight! is a humorous look at more than 20 unusual or insane inventions of the Second World War. Each chapter features a detailed examination of the real history and technology behind each invention. All 19 chapters are linked by a fictional narrative that explores what might have happened had the inventions been put to use during the War. The book is also lavishly illustrated, with 18 full-color illustrations and more than two dozen detailed black and white illustrations. My Tank is Fight! is not a dry analysis of the forgotten weapons of war, it brings those weapons to life."

30 foot high super-tanks.
U-boats that crawl out of the water on treads.
Backpack helicopters.
Aircraft carriers made out of ice.
Spaceplane bombers
Flying tanks

They actually built 2 of those in at least prototype form.

Funny stuff, well-organized, and aimed at the fan of WWII as a pulp-adventure. I wish the author had kept going. Yes, I know the Germans had a real knack for the absurd weapons, but he couldn't find anything in the Pacific Theatre? Weren't the Japanese going to bomb the Panama Canal with submarine-launched bombers? Where are they?

I need a sequel.

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05 December 2008

Pulpy Seaplane Adventures - Review of "Night Over Water"

Night Over Water Night Over Water by Ken Follett

review rating: 3 of 5 stars

From GoodReads:

"September 1939. England is at war with Nazi Germany. In Southampton, the world's most luxurious airliner-the legendary Pan Am clipper-takes off for its final flight to neutral America. Aboard are the cream of society and the dregs of humanity, all fleeing the war for reasons of their own...shadowed by a danger they do not know exists...and heading straight into a storm of violence, intrigue, and betrayal..."

This was a hand-me-down tag-sale purchase from my father. I think he picked it up since he is an aviation buff, and on that score the book comes through - plenty of loving descriptions of the Clipper and of a Tiger Moth used in an early chapter.

For plot and characterization, I kept feeling like I was more watching a local theatre play or even more like a LARP. A lot of time is spent in an enclosed space (the Clipper) exploring how the different characters interact with several different plot lines interweaving.

They don't interweave all that well. In addition, I felt I saw the few plot twists coming a mile away.

My biggest gripe was with our POV characters. Of the 5 POV characters, three are female. All three female characters are played up for their sexiness and seem to have major problems coming to and sticking to decisions. Nancy Leneham (the oldest of the female characters) starts as very self-assured, but has it all messed up by love and Daddy-issues by the end. The other two women, Diana Lovesey and Margaret Oxenford, show themselves to be indicisive, easily led, and rather incompetant.

Our two male POV characters are manly, decisive, and (especially in the case of Harry Marks) improbably successful. Their only weaknesses? Their love for their respective women.


I know it's pulp. I like pulp. I'll even give historical pulp a pass for reflecting the morals of it's time.

But this felt sometimes like the author was coming off a bad relationship and wanted to punish his ex.

That said, a part of me still wants to rent a hotel ballroom for a weekend, decorate it in Pan-Am colors and stick two-dozen LARPers in there with characters swiped from this book and see how it goes. Assuming I knew how to run a LARP.

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02 December 2008

Secret Underground Tunnel Base in Central London -- FOR SALE!

How cool would this be for my WWII-themed bookstore!

For a mere five million pounds, Doolittle's could by 77,00 sq. ft of tunnel in central London. The tunnels were built in WWII to serve as air-raid shelters and later housed MI6, a Cold War communications center, and a public records center.

I can totally see the business flyers:

Doolittle's Books
Everything for the WWII Afficianado
Under High Holborn
London, UK

Who's willing to donate?

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