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.
Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories
Women’s stories from the past are starting to be told by historians, though it is slow going mostly because of the lack of sources. Hopefully this book will start to fill that gap by looking at how the women of Montana helped build the state, and made it what it is today. Because, as the title suggests, not all women were either teachers or madams. This book is filled with short articles that examines the role, life, and times of women in Montana. From the time the state was a territory; to modern day Montana and the role and impact they had. From becoming the first attorney, a doctor in a rural area, or even women working in what were viewed as traditionally male dominated. These stories help fill a void.
Each of these stories are short, around three pages or so, and often accompanied by a picture. They tell an interesting story and that is what the contributors bring to life. A story that has been ignored, and if it wasn’t for contributors like these, then these stories would likely be lost forever. Hopefully something like this will bring a closer look to other states and their stories.
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.
Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure
Sweetest Day, Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Graduations, Weddings, Birthdays all are celebrated with candy. Candy is so ubiquitous that it lurks in our vending machines, ready for purchase any time one needs to satisfy the cravings of a sweet tooth. It is used to celebrate friendship, love, or job well done. It is so much a part of not only our diet, but also our culture that it is difficult to imagine life without the sweet decadent candy.
Part personal memoir and part history of candy, this book traces the origins and development of candy – both chocolate and non-chocolate – primarily in the United States. It starts with the Native American Indians who needed the sugary treats as a means of nourishment and survival to the early twenty first century where it is intertwined with American popular culture (imagine Halloween without candy).
The historical narrative is chronological, easy to read and filled with factoids that would delight readers interested in historical trivia. The historical narrative sometimes digresses to vignettes of incidents from the author’s life. While how connected these incidents are to the overall narrative is questionable, these events do relate (at least peripherally) to candy. The text is adorned, rather than enhanced, by greyscale pictures. These pictures would benefit from a description, photo editing (some are low resolution, and others need to be rotated), and color. In one instance, the same low-res image is duplicated. Some of the websites in the reference are now dead links. This review is based on an advanced reading copy, not the released publication. The centerpiece of this book – the historical narrative – makes the book, despite its flaws, a worthwhile read.
Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat
In twelve delightfully detailed chapters, science journalist Marta Zaraska reveals how we have become so fixated on meat in our diets. From the onset of life as microbes engulfed other microbes, the body’s demand for sustenance evolved into devouring both plants and animals. Religions, customs, rulers, topography, and geography frequently dictated the diet. Wealthier and more powerful countries tended to consume more meat—be it pork, cow, sheep, dog, horse, rat, fowl, or fish. The more carnivorous selection by the early hunter-gatherer is credited for enabling the increase in brain size. The umami component of meat seduced the consumer with its appealing protein flavor. However, plants also possess this umami essence especially in soy products, therefore vegetarians can also harvest this special quality in foods. Now with our increasing concern regarding meat consumption and its possible association with the incidence of diabetes, heart problems, cancer, and possibly obesity, dietary changes towards a plant diet seem indicated. Such a change would reduce cattle raising and reduce water demands, pollution, and global warming. Read the fascinating stories of cultural influences on eating habits, novel recipes shaping soy veggies into pseudo-steaks and burgers, and lab grown meat on petri dishes, along with the horror stories of how animals are treated. The contents are engrossing.
Jewels of Allah
Is there any subject of which the average Westerner harbors more misconceptions and false assumptions than the role of the Middle Eastern woman? Dr. Nina Ansary tackles these misconceptions directly in her book Jewels of Allah, explaining that the history of women’s rights in Iran isn’t as simple as we assume. In fact, what is surprising is how women have found methods of liberation through their oppression. Two prominent examples are the mandated wearing of the hijab and the institution of single-sex education. Ansary explains that with the institutionalization of both the hijab and single-sex education, many conservative Muslim families felt more comfortable sending their daughters to school. Additionally, girls attending an all-girl school flourished more and were more comfortable voicing their opinions than they had been in the coeducational schools of the Pahlavi monarchy.
The Pahlavi era was one of rapid social progress. Too rapid, perhaps: Centuries of custom and tradition were ousted almost overnight, including the role of women. During the Persian centuries, women played a subordinate role, but with the advent of the Pahlavi era, women were allowed to hold political office, become lawyers, obtain divorces, and dress how they pleased. The hijab, however, was outlawed, and many Iranians believed the Pahlavi were mere puppets of the Western powers. In 1979 the pendulum of progress swung back with a vengeance, as the revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Pahlavi regime and the era’s hard-won social progress. Women were once again forced to play a subordinate role. Yet as Ansary shows, there was and continues to be a thriving women’s rights movement despite the oppressive patriarchal laws and regulations. During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, for instance, women filled many of the jobs left vacant by men fighting in the war, not unlike women during World War II. Ansary also cites the numerous women’s magazines and periodicals in post-revolutionary Iran as an impetus and outlet for women’s concerns, and devotes an entire chapter to the women’s magazine Zanan and its founder, Shahla Sherkat.
One of the most important revelations of the book is that there is not just one type of Iranian woman. Even within the progressive women’s movement there are differences. There are devout Muslim women who seek to reconcile and reinterpret the Koran more favorably for women, and there are also secular women who believe no such reconciliation is possible and work for a complete break with tradition, yet despite their differences both camps work together for the advancement of women’s rights. Nina Ansary’s book is a must-read for anyone hoping for a fuller understanding of the role of women and the women’s rights movement in Iran. It is a much-needed antidote to Western misconceptions