The Man with the Poison Gun : A Cold War Spy Story
Serhii Plokhy’s book The Man With the Poison Gun tells the story of a KGB officer-turned-defector, Bogdan Stashinsky, who assassinated the central figure of the Ukrainian nationalists, Stepan Bandera, with a specially made weapon that shoots a dart of poison into a person’s heart, causing them to have a heart attack while leaving no trace of the substance.
To many Ukrainians, Stepan Bandera is considered a hero who fought for their national identity. To the Soviets and later the Russians, he is a villain who cooperated with the Nazis and killed many Russians, Poles, and Jews. The whole beauty of the book is that the author paints the picture objectively without taking either side. His account of Bogdan Stashinsky’s assassination of Bandera, his defection to the West, and his later trial is very fascinating and reads like a spy novel.
Overall, I enjoyed The Man with the Poison Gun. I would recommend it to anybody who’s interested in Cold War espionage.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
For the Western world, cities in the East have difficult names, are exotic, perhaps backwards, and rarely considered to have an impact on Western politics and society. This book’s aim is to present a case that these cities, and the empires that once claimed them continue to have a real influence on today’s economies all over the globe. World histories typically suffer from two main criticisms: They do not take in to account all factors that lead to major world events, focusing instead on only a few main ones which they claim are relevant. The second criticism is that they do not take into account all world events, sometimes ignoring large portions of history especially if these historical narratives are at odds with the historian’s world view.
This book attempts to explain world events arising from events and attitudes along the Silk Road (defined as the network of trade routes from China to the Mediterranean). It also reduces the impetus for major events to economic motives. In the process it focuses unevenly on certain historical events and epochs – a criticism that can be levelled against virtually any historical account.
The narrative is chronological starting with the Persian Empire, and speculating about the future. Along the way the trade and transportation of goods along the Silk Road is discussed which brings in its wake other consequences. One such consequence is the evolution of religions along the Silk Road as they compete and trade ideas with each other. Another is the transmission of disease that brought the Black Death to Europe. The Atlantic Trade is also discussed and tied to trade along the Silk Road, as are major conflicts. In recent times, the world has looked to the West as a model of sophistication. This book predicts that current world events will move the center of the world back to the Silk Road – where it claims it has traditionally been. Readers may not agree with the views presented in this book. However it does provide an alternate viewpoint. For those who embrace alternate viewpoints, or are curious about them, this would be a good book.
John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
John Quincy Adams was the 6th President of the United States. He was the son of a President. A lot of people might stop right there and be inclined to write him off. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit does no such thing. John Quincy Adams lived an extraordinary life, he was a witness to the Battle of Bunker Hill at age 8 while his father John Adams labored in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia trying to mold this country together. His mother Abigail was his primary caregiver and shaped his mind. John Quincy’s teenage years would be colored by his time in Europe with his diplomat father. He would be influenced by his time there but also by his idol, Thomas Jefferson. The time spent in Europe would lead to future vocations as diplomat under President George Washington. In 1797, John Quincy would marry Louisa Johnson. It would be a marriage with times of great struggle, from financial imbroglios (Louisas father, John Quincy’s brother) to multiple miscarriages, but their union would never be broken. Meanwhile, John Quincy would go from lawyer to State Legislature then eventually Secretary of State. This position would put him in good stead for his run at the Presidency in 1824, which he would win but not without controversy. Quincy’s willingness to buck the system would hamper attempts at getting legislation passed. His defeat in 1828 seemed to sound the death knell of his career, but his political fortitude would lead to a career in congress that would span the rest of his life, where he would leave an indelible mark on the country.
James Traub’s biography of John Quincy Adams is an excellent telling of a life often overlooked. History books tend to brush Adams off after his one term in office but the truth is far more compelling. Traub mentions Adams’ battles with the slave holding South and his stubbornness in not going with the flow in pitched battles. Adams was a maverick before the term became fashionable and Traub makes his mark with this well told biography of a forgotten trailblazer.
ClanDonnell: A Storied History of Ireland
David McDonnell tells Ireland’s history through a unique lens, tracing the history of the original Clan Donnell (Donald in Scotland) and offshoot clans (McDonnells, McDonalds, O’Donnells, etc.) that dominated the Hebrides Islands, Highland Scotland, and much of Ireland, until the English subjugated the island in the 17th century.
McDonnell has a story-teller’s voice, though his richly textured and layered 900-plus-page book is factual. Familiar historic figures star in this story, but the author shows a Donnell, a Donald, or a McDonnell on the scene at every turn, including “The Troubles” of the 1900s. It’s a mesmerizing book that feels like a personal journey through Ireland’s history.
In the Clan Era, there was much travel between Scotland and what was Ireland at that time: not a nation, but an amalgam of small kingdoms headed by clan leaders chosen by their clan members and associated clans. The McDonnell clan was predominant in the north but migrated south as well. “Redshanks” and “Gallowglass warriors” (well-trained Scots mercenaries loyal to McDonnell clan in Northern Ireland) could be rented out to other clans in both places, which gave the McDonnells more power and land for their clans. (The English were terrified of these warriors.)
Early Scots who immigrated assimilated easily into the Irish clans. Viking invasions of the 8th and 10th centuries also assimilated into Celtic clans. The Celtic clan culture worked for more than a thousand years, and author McDonnell raises a good question: Who really is Irish? Ireland was invaded over centuries by many different groups — all of whom wove themselves into the culture and became part of the Ireland we know today.
A clan leader’s first concern was to provide what was best for the clan. That changed with the Norman and English invasions in the late 12th century. Clan leaders who made peace with the invaders became earls instead; their clan members became tenants. Later, English colonizers turned this to their own advantage: when these Irish earls were recalcitrant, they were replaced with English landlords, most of them absentee landlords. The subjugation of Ireland became complete under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I (who encouraged Protestants from the Scottish lowlands to immigrate into what is now Ulster), and Cromwell, whose system of forfeiture reduced most Irish to subsistence or homelessness long before the potato blight of the 1840s. James I and Cromwell set the scenes for “The Hunger” and Diaspora of the 1840s, and the horrendous “Troubles” in the 20th century. At every event in this absorbing book, one meets a McDonnell or two — some on one side, some on the other. There were McDonnell landlords and earls, McDonnell members of the IRA. Some fought for England in WWI.
As promised, McDonnell doesn’t litter pages with footnotes, claiming they make for a tedious read. I do think the book could have benefitted from appendices in the back with more timelines and maps. An index would have been helpful, too. I had to do a lot of re-reading and page-turning to keep track of events. That said, this is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in Irish history.
The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich
The Devils Diary starts off with a mystery, chiefly the whereabouts of Alfred Rosenberg’s diaries. Alfred Rosenberg wasn’t your garden variety Nazi. His racial ideas and views on a “Jewish Conspiracy” fed the fire that rose into National Socialism in Germany. Rosenberg’s story is told alongside that of one of his prosecutors, Robert Kempner, who would play a key role in the Nuremberg trials post World War II. Rosenberg would battle Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler for the favor of Adolf Hitler as time went on and the Third Reich would tighten its grip on Germany and eventually Europe. Rosenberg’s diary chronicles much of the rise and eventual fall of the hydra that was Nazi Germany.
The Devils Diary is part biography/part detective story. It is a story of a man whose hatred would fuel the souls of many more, but the book also delves into the life of Robert Kempner, who escaped the mass slaughter of his people and eventually got a small amount of revenge against his family’s killers. The authors show the quick rise and fall of a man who hid behind an ideology, but took no responsibility for the atrocities committed in the name of such ideology. Interesting doesn’t do enough to adequately describe a timeless work such as this. It is nothing short of a treasure.
The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, A Brief History
When it comes to reading textbooks or primers on particular subjects, the key really is that the writing keep the reader’s interest, otherwise their mind is likely to wander and/or become bored with the subject matter they are reading about. Thankfully, Jack L. Schwartzwald’s brief history on the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome has an interesting and engaging voice that grabs the reader’s attention right from the beginning and keeps them going for the whole book.
This “brief history” is still a good 190-odd pages of informational text, along with an extensive bibliography and thorough index, giving the reader quick references at their fingertips. For those readers looking to read it cover to cover, the book is divided into three chapters: “The Cradle of Civilization: The Ancient Near East,’ “The Cradle of Western Civilization: Ancient Greece,” and “The Cradle of the Nation-State: Ancient Rome.” While it seems like heavy reading to digest the entire book with just three chapter breaks, especially on this none-too-easy subject, each chapter is subdivided into sections with titles to allow for breaks and digestion of the material. The shortest chapter is the first one at 30 pages, which is sad, because it is such an import period in history that lead to the foundation and creation of so much that came after, nevertheless it is clear that while Schwartzwald knows plenty about the ancient Near East, it is ancient Greece and Rome where he dedicates his true knowledge.
The history telling is straightforward, with lots of names and dates throughout the text, as the author lays out the history and events and happenings in succinct paragraphs. There is not a lot of discussion or synthesis here, as this is a “brief history” after all and nothing more. Schwartzwald is giving you the quick history of these times and places so that you can speedily digest and understand it. If you are looking for further, deeper material, that is what the bibliography is for. But in this way the book also serves as an excellent reference tool, along with the index, so that if the reader is tackling something in depth, but wants a quick refresher on a specific period in the ancient Near East, Greece or Rome, this book does the job well.
What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is all text, with not a single picture, table, graphic, or depiction of a graphic source. While, again, it is a “brief history” and meant for a quick and thorough reading of the time period, one would expect maybe a photo or two, a Roman statue or Greek piece of architecture, or even Hammurabi’s code of laws; something to break up the text and help make it all the more real for the reader. Nevertheless, the book does its job of providing a “brief history” of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, where the reader will not become lost and overwhelmed by too much, but able to digest everything in titled sections. It is an ideal book for someone taking an ancient history class and looking to get a feel for the history they are about to learn about or for the average reader wanting to learn more about the period, but not having to absorb a heavy and overwhelming tome. The people, dates, and events in the book are all laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to take it all in swiftly and comprehensively.