When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank: History’s Unknown Chapters
History is full of little known or unknown episodes that nevertheless deserve to be told. This book collects fifty of these dramatic episodes, ranging from the time when Churchill encouraged a biological weapons test (leaving an island uninhabitable for decades) to the poisoning death of Joseph Stalin to the finding of Otzi, the Ice Man. There was the time when London was duped by imagined riches from the South Sea Company and when a secret Nazi program was run to breed children for Hitler. The title might seem to imply that this would be a humorous collection of little-known history tidbits, but in fact it is deadly serious. And, although many of the vignettes are disturbing and/or tragic, as episodes in history frequently are, it is a gripping read and very enjoyable. It features great writing and stories told with force and drama and broad interest. Although it is impossible to find a unifying theme for the whole of the set, the stories are well-chosen and all are engrossing. Each is only a couple pages long, and it is easy to pick up for just a quick minute when you want to dip into a unknown corner of history.
God told me to draw these.
When reading satirical cartoons, we assume there’s an astute political mind behind them, but it’s not often we get to get to see the comics given extra weight by commentary. This book offers that, with 100 of De Salvio’s published illustrations accompanied by essays explaining their genesis (note the small ‘g’ there). Being Catholic educated, a former newspaper editor and columnist, a gifted artist and a gay man who was at Stonewall, the author/illustrator is in a unique position to invoke the tragicomic specter of homophobia. Combining laugh-out-loud humor with serious reporting, he gives readers a chance to not only revel in the ridiculousness of Rush Limbaugh and Michele Bachman quotes, but also to read a serious interview with late Randy Shilts (And the Band Played on, Conduct Unbecoming).
The topics covered here deserve everyone’s attention, regardless of orientation: Teen suicide, gay-positive school programs, international policy on gays in the military, the illogic of automatically associating same-sex orientation with child molestation, right-wing extremism, Bible literalism and distortion, landmarks in LGBT legislation, the myths of recruiting and homosexuality-as-choice, and the Vatican’s perplexing stance on the matter (it’s ok to be queer; it’s not ok to act on it).
The introduction warns that some Internet searches may be needed to fully understand the subjects, and indeed references like Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” might be unfamiliar. But go ahead and get familiar with them. Be glad that someone who knows the Constitution as well as the Bible took the time to make a point-by-point refutation of a sermon on America being a Christian nation. Even better, that it was done by someone who follows the precepts of Jesus.
By book’s end, you’ll be all aglow with the joy of lampooning–and not the mean-spirited kind, either. As the author says, “Be kind to Creationists. Remember, they have not yet evolved.”
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.
67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence
May 4 1970 was your average day in Vietnam, seeing two dozen deaths of US soldiers. President Nixon had just announced the bombing of Cambodia, which led to massive protests on college campuses. Kent State University had recently come alive with unrest in town involving a near riot, which resulted in the Mayor calling in the National Guard. The university had seen the burning of the ROTC building along with rumors of a protest rally on campus on the 4th. The fuse was lit on a powder keg and the explosion was imminent. 67 shots would ring out on the Ohio campus at mid-day. When the smoke cleared & some semblance of order was restored, 4 were dead, scores wounded. The questions would be numerous, the answers almost nil. What led to the triggers being squeezed that shattered the calm of that Monday afternoon? Poor training, sleep deprivation, youth of the troops is blamed, while the establishment blamed the incendiary nature of the clash and the riotous hatred of the student led mob. Questions of outside agitation were repeatedly raised and culpability was spread on all sides.
Howard Means’ look at a horrible moment in US history is crucial to understanding the law, poltiics, basic rights and how occasionally all three clash, and how the former fail the latter. The author doesn’t pick sides in the telling of those momentous days, just shedding a flash light on history (known & unknown). Means sees this event as different than other shootings (school & protest), because of the climate surrounding it, the questions still surrounding May 4 and what lessons have been learned from it or ignored. The bottom line is May 4, 1970 still resonates in America for the survivors and those who watched.
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.