Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Perfect Horse

The year is 1945.  The war in Europe is almost over.  American troops learn that a stud farm in Hostau contains horses looted by the Nazis from all over Europe, including all the mares of the famous Lipizzaners of Austria, the pride of the Spanish Riding School.  Unless something is done to ensure the area is captured peacefully, the cream of Europe’s equine population will be at risk of destruction in the fighting.

There’s a huge problem standing in the way; Hostau is on the other side of the Czechoslovakian  border, where the U.S. Army has been forbidden to trespass.  Can the 2nd Cavalry convince command to make an exception in time?  Even if they do, can they pull it off with minimal bloodshed?

That mission is the centerpiece of this volume, but there’s considerable material both before and after it.  Author Elizabeth Letts is an equestrian herself, and it really shows in the descriptions of the bond between rider and mount.  There are also quite a few black and white illustrations that give context to the story.

One of the central figures of this history is Alois Podhajsky, introduced riding dressage for the Austrian team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics before taking the reins of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  A great lover of horses, especially the Lipizzaner, he did what he had to do to preserve the horses and the riding school, even if it meant abandoning the school building to save the stallions.

On the American side, there’s Colonel Hank Reed, cavalry commander from the days when they had been horse soldiers (not that long before–it was 1942 when the U.S. decided to make their cavalry completely mechanized!)  He was fully aware of the value of what might be lost if Hostau was not captured without a battle, and was the one to order the mission.

But there are plenty of other humans involved.  Gustav Rau was Nazi Germany’s Master of Horse, and believed that he could breed a perfect horse, superior in battle, and destined to aid the Third Reich in conquering the world.  (Since he was a civilian and not involved in any war crimes against humans, he got off scot-free at the end of the war.  Information that has come out since has made his legacy more controversial.)

Rudolph Lessing was a German Army veterinarian who’d spent the first few years of the war fighting on the Eastern Front.  It wasn’t until he was pulled back to Occupied Poland that he realized just what atrocities were happening and that his country might not be the good guys in this conflict.

And of course General George S. Patton, America’s Fightin’est General, who sort of authorized the Hostau mission, in the Mission: Impossible sense.  “If you are captured or killed, Command will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  He, too, was a man who appreciated a fine horse, and also helped out the stallions of the Spanish Riding School.

Of course, just capturing the stud farm didn’t actually make the horses safe, and they then had to be moved to better locations.  Some went home to the countries they’d been stolen from (and the Spanish Riding School exists to this day), others made the perilous sea voyage to America, and some found homes wherever they were.

There’s an epilogue section that details the final fates of the major figures in the story, both horses and men.  There are endnotes (including notes on when the sources used contradict each other), a bibliography and full index.

The book is movingly written and will be appreciated both by horse lovers and World War Two buffs.  There is some discussion of disturbing material, but this book should be suitable for senior high readers on up.

Older readers may be thinking, “wait, wasn’t there a Disney TV movie about this?”  Yes, there was.  The Miracle of the White Stallions was released in the early 1960s.  It was, of course, somewhat loose with the historical facts, but here’s the trailer.

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Book Review: Headstrong

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields.  According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother.  And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.

Headstrong

And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science.  So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell.  One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades.  Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.

Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days.  The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.)  The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.

Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted!  Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.

It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial,  Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.

While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up.  It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes.  Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book.  The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.

Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1 edited by Joe Kubert & Joe Orlando

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970s created a horror anthology boom at DC Comics.  At the same time, the once best-selling war comics were going into a slump, at least partially due to the real-life Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular.  So a hybrid title was created that combined the two genres.

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

Like many anthology comics, there was initially a framing device of a narrator telling the stories to a soldier and the reader.  This switched around a few times, until the series settled on Death as the host of the book.  For who knows the stories of war better?  The majority of the stories are set in World War Two, both because the writers and artists had served in that conflict or were close to those that were, and because the sides were so clearly drawn.  None of the stories in the first twenty-one issues are set in the Vietnam conflict; the most recent war covered is the Korean War in one story, and even then not presented by name.

The art in this volume is stellar.  Joe Kubert (who also got to be an editor on this title), Russ Heath, Irv Novick and others are well-served by the black and white reprint.  The stories range from good to trite.  The two most often used plots are “Corporal Bob saved your life?  But he died last week!” and “Arrogant Nazis disregard local superstitions, die horribly.”  A couple of standouts are Issue #11’s “October 30”, which is a series of interconnected stories taking place on that date in different years as Von Krauss seeks glory and promotion in more than one war; and “The Warrior and the Witch Doctors!” which has a Roman legionary time traveling, but a unique twist ending changes everything.

The Comics Code, while loosened, was still in effect, so while rape and suicide are implied, they are never directly shown.  The gore is also turned way down, unlike many current horror comics.  (On the other hand, there’s enough violence to make the “Make War No More” buttons that sometimes end the stories seem out of place.)  There are some period ethnic slurs in a couple of the stories.  Only one female soldier is seen, and very briefly at that in a post-atomic war story.

The subject matter means that this volume won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the art makes it well worth it for fans of war comics who can take a little weirdness in with it.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

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