Generals in the Making by Benjamin Runkle

I have always been fascinated by the development of leaders. Benjamin Runkle chronicles the development of pivotal World War II American Army generals in Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II.

Runkle produces a phenomenal work in describing the ascent of many of the generals who led the United States Army to victory in the European and Pacific Theaters.  Runkle primarily focuses on Generals George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur, but also touches on others such as Generals Mark Clark, Joe Stilwell, and Omar Bradley. For the four main generals, Runkle outlines their careers, with particular attention to the interwar years.

As Runkle points out, many of the generals advanced through luck or guidance from influential mentors. Regarding the influence of mentors, Runkle details how General Fox Conner heavily impacted Eisenhower’s career through his guidance.  Conner’s greatest influence occurred when Eisenhower was assigned as Conner’s subordinate in Panama for three years. Conner taught Eisenhower how to think more strategically. Much of this relationship has been well chronicled by other historians, but Runkle connects these three years as extremely influential in Eisenhower’s ability to see grand strategy, which helped in World War II.

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Stay Home & Read: The Heebie-Jeebie Girl by Susan Petrone

Cover of THe Heebie-Jeebie GirlYoungstown, Ohio, 1977. Between the closing of the city’s largest steel mill and the worst blizzard in more than 40 years, the table is set for remarkable change. Unemployed steel worker Bobby Wayland is trying hard to help his family and still pay for his wedding, but the only solution he can think of involves breaking the law. On the other side of town, a little girl named Hope is keeping a big secret, one she won’t even share with her Great Uncle Joe―she can make things move without touching them. Watching over both of them is the city herself, and she has something to say and something to do about all of this.

The Heebie-Jeebie Girl is the story of an era ending and the uncertainty that awakens. It’s the story of what happens when the unconscionable meets the improbable. It’s the story of dreams deferred, dreams devoured, and dreams dawning. It is likely to be the most distinctive novel you read this year, but it will startle you with its familiarity. Author Susan Petrone has created an unforgettable tale of family, redemption, and magic.

I was originally attracted to The Heebie-Jeebie Girl by Susan Petrone because of the time period, 1970’s of my youth, and the location, Youngstown-a place very different than my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from NetGalley and started reading it almost immediately.

I waited to post a review until closer to publication, which happens to be today (for the ebook at least).

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The Eulogist by Terry Gamble

The Eulogist by Terry Gamble is an excellent story about an immigrant family who lives in Cincinnati and southern Ohio during a period of great change in the early United States.

Here is a little on the plot from the publisher:

Cheated out of their family estate in Northern Ireland after the Napoleonic Wars, the Givens family arrives in America in 1819. But in coming to this new land, they have lost nearly everything. Making their way west they settle in Cincinnati, a burgeoning town on the banks of the mighty Ohio River whose rise, like the Givenses’ own, will be fashioned by the colliding forces of Jacksonian populism, religious evangelism, industrial capitalism, and the struggle for emancipation.

After losing their mother in childbirth and their father to a riverboat headed for New Orleans, James, Olivia, and Erasmus Givens must fend for themselves. Ambitious James eventually marries into a prosperous family, builds a successful business, and rises in Cincinnati society. Taken by the spirit and wanderlust, Erasmus becomes an itinerant preacher, finding passion and heartbreak as he seeks God. Independent-minded Olivia, seemingly destined for spinsterhood, enters into a surprising partnership and marriage with Silas Orpheus, a local doctor who spurns social mores.

When her husband suddenly dies from an infection, Olivia travels to his family home in Kentucky, where she meets his estranged brother and encounters the horrors of slavery firsthand. After abetting the escape of one slave, Olivia is forced to confront the status of a young woman named Tilly, another slave owned by Olivia’s brother-in-law. When her attempt to help Tilly ends in disaster, Olivia tracks down Erasmus, who has begun smuggling runaways across the river—the borderline between freedom and slavery.

As the years pass, this family of immigrants initially indifferent to slavery will actively work for its end—performing courageous, often dangerous, occasionally foolhardy acts of moral rectitude that will reverberate through their lives for generations to come.

Gamble provides a fascinating look at family dynamics at a time when African Americans were thought to be subservient to whites and women were considered the “lesser” sex. Gamble delicately and masterfully balances the independent thoughts of Olivia with how a woman was viewed in society at the time—without letting our modern ideas intrude into the story.

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Stay Home & Read: Give Me Liberty

One of the myriad reasons for the near-death of this blog is that I simply don’t have the time, focus or energy to put into serious reviews of serious books. I read a decent amount of non-fiction but review very little of it. I feel caught in a catch-22, if I could write serious reviews of non-fiction I could get paid to do it and yet I rarely get around to posting quick reviews of the same books because I want to do the book justice.

Well, if this whole #StayHomeAndRead thing is going to work I am going to have to post some short blog reviews of non-fiction books. So let’s start with one of my favorite authors, Richard Brookhiser, and his latest book Give Me Liberty.

There are two things happening in this book: one is a simple history of America through the lens of our pursuits of liberty, the second is an argument about American nationalism.

The first thread creates the structure of the book

This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent shots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is. They show who asked for it, when, and why. Since no marriage is ever simple, they track its ups and downs. These thirteen liberty documents define America as the country that it is, different from all others

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A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier

In another stroke of luck, I was looking for something short and interesting to read and grabbed A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier [Emily Boyce, Translator] from the TBR pile. It turns out the release date was yesterday. So despite not necessarily being a book I would recommend for #StayAtHomeAndRead, I figured I would offer a quick review here.

Publishers Description:

Marc dreams of going somewhere far, far away – but he’ll start by taking his cat and his grown-up daughter, Anne, to an out-of-season resort on the Channel.

Reluctant to go home, the curious threesome head south for Agen, whose main claim to fame is its prunes. As their impromptu road trip takes ever stranger turns, the trail of destruction – and mysterious disappearances – mounts up in their wake.

Shocking, hilarious and poignant, the final dose of French noir from Pascal Garnier, published shortly before his death, is the author on top form.

Having read The Panda Theory I guess I should have expected odd, black humor. After all here is what I wrote about that book:

What an odd little book. Bills itself as noir but veers close to black comedy. It is French so perhaps I should have expected weird … :-)

Ditto for this book. It was a very odd atmospheric road trip.

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Stay Home & Read: The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

When this month started I wasn’t real bullish on the continued existence of this blog. But then the planet was hit with a pandemic, my kids schools were closed and I am working from home. I started musing on the fact that a lot of people might suddenly have more time on their hands and want to know about good books to read.  In a making lemonade sort of way I thought maybe I could provide a service with something I’m calling #StayAtHomeAndRead.  Unfortunately, as I was contemplating restarting this moribund blog my basement flooded which grabbed my attention for a few days.

But as luck would have it, what was schedule to be released today but a new book by one of my favorite authors. So I decided to start the series with The Last Tourist by friend of the blog Olen Steinhauer.

Publishers teaser:

In Olen Steinhauer’s bestseller An American Spy, reluctant CIA agent Milo Weaver thought he had finally put “Tourists”—CIA-trained assassins—to bed.

A decade later, Milo is hiding out in Western Sahara when a young CIA analyst arrives to question him about a series of suspicious deaths and terrorist chatter linked to him.

Their conversation is soon interrupted by a new breed of Tourists intent on killing them both, forcing them to run.

As he tells his story, Milo is joined by colleagues and enemies from his long history in the world of intelligence, and the young analyst wonders what to believe. He wonders, too, if he’ll survive this encounter.

Perhaps I should get the disclosures out of the way.  I’ve been a fan of Olen Steinhauer since I stumbled upon Bridge of Sighs in 2005.  I have interviewed him a couple of times, and have even started watching the TV show he created and produces, Berlin Station (by purchasing it on Amazon because I didn’t have Epix, I might add).  Unlike with The Middleman, from which the above disclosure is taken, this time I didn’t forget to post a review on pub day. So I got that goin for me.

My take?

Short version: Classic Steinhauer! Intelligent espionage fiction with twist and turns and a global conspiracy. Old characters and new. Makes me want to go back and re-read the whole series with Milo Weaver. And delete a bunch of apps off my phone…

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Pondering the death of a blog or Deja Vu all over again

More than halfway into the second decade of CM I am again pondering quitting.  This is something I have been doing since before the tenth anniversary.

It is the history that makes it hard to just quit.

What to do with all the reviews, interviews and opinions offered over the years?

But if I am honest with myself, I don’t get much joy out of posting and there certainly is no interaction or traffic on the blog anymore. I can probably get review copies just posting to NetGalley, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.

It also bugs me a little that quitting would feel like failure; reflect on my character in some way.  I always wanted to prove that I could improve my focus and writing and offer quality book reviews here again.  But the motivation just isn’t there. I’m not sure people read personal blogs anymore anyways.

I’m going to ponder things a bit more but it seems depressing to limp along for months again and come back and read another “Is this blog dead?” post.

Reforesting Faith: Are trees essential to every Christian’s understanding of God? (5/100)

Sunlight shining through trees

I had never heard of Dr. Matthew Sleeth before he visited my church.  One of the Sunday school classes was reading his book The Gospel According to the Earth. I will confess that I was skeptical of the title and the subject for a variety of reasons I won’t go into at the moment (complicated subject), but when he came to speak I found him quirky and interesting so picked up two of his books: Reforesting Faith and 24/6.

I started reading Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us almost immediately and it was the fourth fifth book I finished in 2020.*

In this groundbreaking walk through Scripture, former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes the convincing case why trees are essential to every Christian’s understanding of God.

Yet we’ve mostly missed how God has chosen to tell His story–and ours–through the lens of trees. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The Bible refers to itself as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18).
Every major Biblical character has a tree associated with them. Jesus himself says he is the true vine (John 15:1). A tree was used to kill Jesus–and a tree is the only thing the Messiah ever harmed.

This is no accident. When we subtract trees from Scripture, we miss lessons of faith necessary for our growth.

This is the rare book that connects those who love the Creator with creation, and those who love creation with the Creator. It offers inspirational yet practical ways to express our love for God–and our neighbors–by planting spiritual trees and physical trees in the world.

After reading it in fits and starts, the chapters are pretty short, I found it to be a very earnest, and at times interesting, but too anecdotal devotional of sorts focused on trees.

Dr. Sleeth moves through scripture pointing out the near constant connection between important moments and trees, bushes, seeds, etc. all the while extolling the planting of trees as a spiritual gift to the planet and our neighbors.

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The Nation or Nationalism? A less than helpful Very Short Introduction (4/100)

*I am attempting to read 100 books in 2020 hence the x/100 in the titles of these posts*

In a bout of focus I decided toward the end of last year to read a couple of books on a unified subject: nationalism.  I read Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, and semi-related Give Me Liberty by Richard Brookhiser.  More on those books later.

I also decided to read Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction by Steven Grosby in an attempt at putting these books in a larger context.

This book examines the political and moral challenges that face the vast majority of human beings who consider themselves to be members of various nations. It explores nationality through the difficulties and conflicts that have arisen throughout history, and discusses nations and nationalism from social, philosophical, and anthropological perspectives.

In this fascinating Very Short Introduction, Steven Grosby looks at the nation in history, the territorial element in nationality, and the complex ways nationality has co-existed with religion, and shows how closely linked the concept of nationalism is with being human.

I should have read the publisher’s description a little more closely…

This volume turned out to be a much more academic approach than previous works I had read (perhaps understandably so) and thus much harder to get through despite it’s designed shortness.

It is also focused on whether the nation is a modern phenomena or a part of human nature (biological versus sociological, etc.).

The only “review” I could find online with a few minutes on Google is helpful, if also academic, and gets to the main issue:

Grosby takes a strong stance against the argument that the formation of nations is historically novel. He acknowledges the important relationship between the modern nation and the relatively recent developments of democratic conceptions of political participation, the social mobility made possible by industrial capitalism, and the impact of technological advancements on transportation and communication. (57) However, he argues that scholars who base their analyses of the origin of the nation on these factors alone are guilty of being selective in their evidence and of disregarding important earlier developments, such as “the emergence of a national law of the land in medieval England.”

I don’t have the energy to go into the details of this argument as it was not really what I was after.

My impression is that this Very Short Introduction is not for the casual reader nor those looking to get more deeply at nationalism in the sense of the political or cultural phenomenon.

Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell continues the chronicles of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the Saxon Tales.

Here is a brief summary of the book from the publisher:

It is a time of political turmoil once more as the fading King Edward begins to lose control over his successors and their supporters. There are two potential heirs—possibly more—and doubt over whether the once separate states of Wessex and Mercia will hold together. Despite attempts at pulling him into the political fray, Uhtred of Bebbanburg cares solely about his beloved Northumbria and its continuing independence from southern control.

But an oath is a strong, almost sacred commitment and such a promise had been exchanged between Uhtred and Aethelstan, his onetime companion in arms and now a potential king. Uhtred was tempted to ignore the demands of the oath and stay in his northern fastness, leaving the quarrelling Anglo-Saxons to sort out their own issues.  But an attack on him by a leading supporter of one of the candidates and an unexpected appeal for help from another, drives Uhtred with a small band of warriors south, into the battle for kingship—and England’s fate.

As with my other reviews of the books in this series, Sword of Kings does not disappoint. Everything from the plot to the character development is great–only difference with this book being that it has a twist for Uhtred. Cornwell shows Uhtred going through a little more adversity than normal – he is humbled. This humbling makes the story that much better.

Not only does Cornwell humble Uhtred, but he also continues to keep Uhtred human (rather than some superhuman that many authors tend to do for their protagonist). Cornwell often has Uhtred doubting his decisions–whether to rescue Queen Eadigfu or to honor his oath to Aethelstan to kill Aethelhelm and his nephew Aelfweard. It is refreshing to have the protagonist be unsure of him or herself.

The battle scenes are as epic as ever, which are visceral with a “down-in-the-trenches” description of men fighting with swords, axes, spears, and shields.

As I read each successive book, I have an increasing sadness knowing that Uhtred is getting older, thus his tale will end at some point in the nearer future.