Fascinating account of the year that allies became enemies


1946: The Making of the Modern World - Victor Sebestyen

I don’t often become completely engrossed in a book of straight history, usually I read historical biographies to get a sense of the past, but this book was hard to put down. With its detailed and in-depth account of events in the year following WWII, focusing on the causes and early stages of the Cold War, 1946: The Making of the Modern World has the most fascinating account of the mid to late twentieth century that I’ve read anywhere. Developments are presented chronologically, starting with an early dispute between the US and the Soviets over oil fields in Iran, but because the background and future impact of each event is included this book is much more than a glorified timeline of how WWII allies very quickly became enemies once the war was over.


Thoroughly researched, the book is highly readable and written with insight and clarity. Its scope goes well beyond Europe and Japan, also including India’s struggles toward independence, France’s attempts to reassert itself in Indochina, the contentious and difficult formations of Israel and Pakistan, colonialism’s dying gasps, and China’s simultaneously occurring communist revolution and war with Japan–one of the many things I learned is that 25% of WWII’s fatalities were in China, more than any other country except the USSR. Some of the most interesting, even eye-opening, parts are revelations about the thoughts, words, and deeds of political leaders, including Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Clement Attlee, Stalin, MacArthur, Hirohito, Mao, Chiang Kai-shek, Mei-Ling Soong, Nehru, Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah,  David Ben Gurion, and Menachem Begin.


If I had any doubts about the difficulties of occupation or the massive extent of devastation, suffering and displacement that continued well after WWII fighting was over, those uncertainties would have been dispelled forever by this book. Because it was years in the making the author was able to interview many people with personal experiences of the time, giving events a human face and adding poignancy and impact to the history.

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Entertaining and enlightening


Road to the Heart - Gloria Steinem

Reading this lively memoir of the vagabond life Gloria Steinem has led–first by necessity and then because she embraced it–made me want to hit the road myself in the hope that I could have even a fraction of her experiences. The varied places and people she’s encountered in her travels give her rich, interesting perspectives on the history and zeitgeist of the times she writes about, which extend from the later years of the Great Depression until today. It makes the book a fascinating, even inspiring combination of personal story and history that’s a lot of fun to read–and because this is Gloria Steinem, readers also get an enlightening front row seat for the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960’s-70’s and its continuing development.


When she was a young child Steinem’s father ran a lakeside music venue in the summer, but once fall came he’d pack everyone in the car to spend the rest of the year driving around the country buying and then selling junk or antiques or whatever, earning enough of a profit to make it to the next town–an enterprise in which  the whole family participated. Steinem thought she longed for a permanent home, but when she reached adulthood that didn’t happen. After college Steinem got a 2-year fellowship to study in India, but when she showed up at the ashram of Vinoba Bhave, one of the leaders in the land reform movement inspired by Gandhi, almost everyone was gone. Caste riots had broken out in nearby, now cordoned off villages, so the ashram residents had formed teams to slip under police barriers and travel from village to village hoping to help contain further violence. One more team wanted to go out, but they needed a women so Steinem was drafted, her first experience of traditional talking circles and modern community activism.


Working as a journalist back in the US, Steinem was dismissed by some of her male colleagues as a token “pretty girl” which helped lead her to the women’s movement and a continued life of organizing, activism, and travel. If you are expecting something dour and humorless, that’s not what you’ll find in this book. Steinem comes across as warmhearted, eager to learn from the people around her, and open to new experiences, all of which makes her wonderful company.  I enjoyed learning more about mid-century politics and the growth of the women’s movement, but I also loved the personal glimpses she gives of people as diverse as Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller, who was a personal friend, and Frank Sinatra, who Steinem spent one awkward Thanksgiving dinner with–he didn’t talk much to anyone but he did let them watch while he put on an engineer’s hat and ran his toy trains around an elaborate track.

Steinem even works in interesting bits of older history, mentioning for instance that the American Constitution is partially modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy, but when Benjamin Franklin invited two Iroquois men to the Constitutional Convention to act as advisers, one of their first comments was something like–why aren’t there any women at this meeting? Good question.

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Back in the USA


Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante: A Maggie Hope Mystery - Susan Elia MacNeal

I always enjoy spending time with Maggie Hope, and the fifth adventure is no exception. In this outing her code-breaking and espionage skills have taken her back across the Atlantic to the US, her childhood home, ostensibly to act as Winston Churchill’s secretary while he confers with President Roosevelt in Washington DC. The attack on Pearl Harbor means America has finally joined the fight, but someone is threatening the joint war effort by trying discredit Mrs. Roosevelt with a manufactured scandal, so Maggie is temporarily assigned to the First Lady’s staff to make sure nothing jeopardizes the Allied alliance.


I greatly enjoyed the fictional portrayals of FDR and Eleanor, and we finally get to meet the aunt who raised Maggie in Boston, an outspoken  women who firmly believes her niece’s prodigious intellectual abilities are being wasted in her job as Winston’s “secretary”, a supposition Maggie is not allowed to correct since she’s undercover. Other historical figures in the book include German rocket maker Wernher von Braun and, surprising to me, Walt Disney, who apparently took time away from Mickey Mouse and his cartoon friends to make propaganda films for the US government.


As always the story skillfully weaves multiple plotlines and points of view, which allows readers to keep up with the actions of Maggie’s Nazi mother and eccentric genius father back in England. Romance is in the mix, but not the focus, and while this book isn’t as dark as some of the early volumes it still addresses serious issues, most notably racism. The series is following the events of WWII closely, so I appreciate the Historical Notes at the end of the book that separate fact from fiction and name the author’s sources. I love this series–the books keep me glued to the page and have greatly enhanced my understanding of WWII dynamics.


I read an ebook advanced review copy of this book, supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

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Pawpaw–the forgotten fruit


Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit - Michael W. Twitty, Andrew Moore

Picture a flavor that combines banana and mango, or imagine a fruit  nicknamed custard apple, and what you have in your mind is the pawpaw, a fruit of tropical origin that somehow worked its way well up into North America. First eaten by megafauna like woolly mammoths, pawpaws were later enjoyed by Native Americans and early settlers. Thomas Jefferson had a grove of pawpaw trees at Monticello and considered the possibility of turning them into a cultivated crop, enslaved Africans who collected pawpaws to supplement their diets were reminded of fruits from their homelands, and when Lewis and Clark went on their exploration of western America eating local pawpaws helped them survive when they were low on provisions. So why aren’t pawpaws around today? That’s the thing, they are around. Pawpaw trees still grow wild in 26 states. Most of us have just forgotten about them.

I had almost but not quite forgotten about the pawpaw–I just never knew they were real. When I was growing up we used to belt out a folk song with the refrain “Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!” but I didn’t realize pawpaws actually existed until not long ago when I was on a birding walk along the edge of the C&O Canal outside Washington DC. The guide pointed out some birds in a pawpaw tree on the other side of the bank, stopping me in my tracks by waking up my atavistic memory of the song and making me feel like Alice in some strange Wonderland created by ghost lyrics.

This book gives the whole fascinating, satisfying scoop on pawpaws, and will be especially interesting to anyone whose interests include plants or food or history or mystery or even wildlife–pawpaw trees are the only larval host of the exotic looking zebra swallowtail butterfly. The author made it his mission to research everything known about pawpaws and he takes readers along as he  attends pawpaw festivals, talks to people who remember eating pawpaws as children, harvests fruit with farmers propagating pawpaws for a growing niche market, and searches out pawpaw trees still growing wild right under our noses (one at Jefferson’s Monticello that the tour guides didn’t know existed!) He’s especially interested in finding trees that are descendants of the ones which bore prize winning fruits in the pawpaw contest of 1916, which adds a little suspense to the story.

Engaging and informative, this book is also strikingly beautiful, even when you remove the very attractive dust jacket, because someone made the whimsical but fitting decision to color it like a pawpaw fruit–the outer hardcover is deep green and the inner endpapers are a very bright yellow. The book also includes a map of the American pawpaw belt and 8 pages of color photos.

Photo from Blue Ridge Discovery Center blog

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Wife and daughters of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know


Lady Byron and Her Daughters - Julia Markus


Annabella Milbanke was still a very young women when she met Lord Byron, but she wasn’t going to throw herself at him the way many others in her set did. Independent, highly intelligent, and well educated, she actually felt a little sorry for the poet. After hearing him complain once about loneliness, she wrote him a letter offering to be his friend, but no more. That started their courtship, but it took several years for Byron to convince her to marry him. Reading about their romance in this fascinating, eye-opening, multi-generational biography, I wanted to leap through the pages, grab her by the shoulders, and shout, “No! Don’t do it!” But even after everything that happened in the short time they managed to live together as husband and wife, and all the ways her eyes were eventually opened to the kind of man Bryon really was, it sounds like she didn’t regret her decision to wed the original Byronic “hero”.


My previous encounters with Lord Byron usually left me with a feeling of good-natured indulgence toward him, “Oh, that crazy poet!” But while reading about him in this book I experienced a rising sense of horror–was he rabidly abusive because he was insane, as other members of his family were rumored to have been, was he “just” a cruel, self-indulgent beast of a man warped by a difficult childhood?  Regency era morality may have been part of the problem, but his actions went well beyond even those norms.


Byron berated and threatened Annabella from the first days of their marriage. She had no idea then why his behavior toward her changed so quickly, and she didn’t know that part of the reason Byron wanted to marry her was to cover up the incestuous relationship he had with his sister, Augusta Leigh. He also had affairs with many other married women including Annabella’s aunt, Lady Melbourne, and her sister-in-law, Caroline Lamb. After learning all this Annabella still hoped to “save” him, but following the birth of their daughter he threw her out, never saw his daughter Ada again, happily used Annabella’s family money to fund his expensive eccentric lifestyle and adventures on the Continent–including outfitting a Greek band of freedom fighters–and then died overseas with Annabella’s name on his lips, unable to complete whatever last message he had for her, leaving her once again distraught.


Unknown and surprising to me, Annabella has been castigated and considered a villain by many of Byron’s  biographers, a viewpoint Julia Markus counters forcefully in this book. According to her research many of their facts were wrong, and the “genius excuses cruelty”  defense of Byron is a foul argument in any case.


After her separation from Byron, Annabella became a politically liberal philanthropist, funding and setting up schools, assisting and advocating for the poor, and opposing slavery. The “daughters” in  the title refers to both Ada, the brilliant child of Annabella and Byron, but also to Medora, Byron’s daughter by his sister. Medora was a troubled young lady and Annabella unofficially adopted her after she was essentially abandoned by her own mother. Ada became famous because of her computer science insights, long before there were any computers to be had, and she can probably thank her mother for those abilities because Annabella was also drawn to and gifted in mathematics–early in their relationship Byron called Annabella “my Princess of Parallelograms”.  


In addition to Annabella, her two daughters and her three grandchildren, this multi-person biography also has interesting side trips into into the lives of a number of other notable people of the nineteenth century, including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Annabella’s first biography.  


I was initially put off by the writing style of this book–it felt choppy and sometimes awkward to me–a fact I mention only because that sense didn’t last much longer than the first chapter. If other readers feel the same way and consider putting the book down after a few pages I would advise sticking with it in case their experience continues to mirror mine. I soon became enthralled, so either the writing style changed, or I adjusted to its flow, or there wasn’t much  problem with it to begin with.


I read an ebook advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through Edelweiss. Review opinions are mine.

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Atheism in the ancient world?


Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World - Tim Whitmarsh

In Battling the Gods Tim Whitmarsh counters the idea that atheism is a new phenomenon, a result of the 18th century European Enlightenment, by using reason, history, and a careful examination of written works from the classical ages of Greece and Rome. Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, states in the Preface that his book is a work of history and that his goal isn’t to prosthelytize for or against atheism as a philosophical position, and I found that to be true, though he does believe that dismissing atheism as a recent fad can make the persecution of atheists seem like a less serious problem than the persecution of religious minorities.


In the opening chapter Whitmarsh argues convincingly that adopting a skeptical attitude toward miracles or supernatural beings would not be a strange, unheard of position at any time in history, and that there would have always been a spectrum of belief and unbelief. After this initial chapter the book is divided into four sections–Archaic Greece, Classical Athens, The Hellenistic Era, and Rome–and it’s in these that the author delves deeply into the written works of ancient poets, philosophers, historians, and playwrights, looking for evidence of atheism from the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers in early Greece to the rise of Christianity during Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire.


As a history I found the book fascinating, but because I’m less invested than the author in dissecting texts to discover which particular people from the ancient past may have held atheist views, my interest flagged at times. Obviously the author needed to do these close and considered readings to support his contention that atheism has been around since at least the dawn of history, and considering the scholarly slant and serious subject matter, it’s a highly readable book and far from dry. Like any well written history, more than a few parts are deeply moving–the chapters on the death sentence imposed on Socrates and the long ranging repercussions of that act, for instance.

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Detailed and fascinating account of America’s first First Family


The Washingtons: George and Martha,

While this doesn’t flow with the feeling of a novel, source material is too scant for that, Flora Fraser has still managed to put together a fascinating, often moving, portrait of America’s first First Family, and through them a history of the Revolutionary War and the early years of the United States, including the issue of slavery since the Washingtons had enslaved people in their service. Unfortunately, very little correspondence between George and Martha Washington survives, Martha burned all that was in her possession when George died, but Fraser fleshes out their life and relationship using what there is, including diary entries, letters written to and from other people, and precise requests for clothing, cloth and other goods that the couple made to merchants.

The book’s meticulous details are the basis of its strength, and Fraser includes all her sources in the Notes section. I was especially interested in the opening chapters featuring George Washington as a pragmatic young man and the early days of his courtship of and then marriage to Martha. I knew least about those times, and I enjoyed encountering Martha as attractive, wealthy young widow, managing her first husband’s estates and raising their children on her own. This interlude of independence served her well when George left their home in Mount Vernon to lead the Continental Army.

In spite, or maybe because, of the many difficulties in their lives, including the premature death of all of Martha’s children, the relationship between the Washingtons was charmingly close, and George’s military colleagues were glad when Martha joined him at army encampments because his mood always improved when she was around. The book goes on to cover the politically tumultuous years after the Revolution, George’s two presidential terms, and the brief time the Washingtons were able to enjoy retirement from public life. The last chapter concludes with Martha’s death in 1802, three years after George passed away.

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