Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

What do we remember about Benedict Arnold’s place in the American Revolution?  George Washington was the good guy and Benedict Arnold the bad one,  right?   But why – what drove Arnold to treason,  how did he commit it,  was he guilty and what happened later?     I certainly remember next to nothing about the specifics, if I ever knew.



Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick
2016 / 443 pages
rating:  9 
**  And a huge thank you to Penguin Group at Viking  for the ARC via NetGalley **

Digging beneath the surface of the military actions and personalities of the struggle for independence,  Nathaniel Philbrick has come up with some very interesting conclusions – not necessarily aligned with the ones we read in our grade school history texts –   along with all sorts of extenuating circumstances and tons of fascinating extras even for the fairly well versed.

The first half was familiar territory for me but Philbrick writes nicely and it was a good review of the times between the time Admiral William Howe and his brother General Richard Howe sailed into American waters just south of New York,  through Washington on the Delaware and at Trenton,  the battles around New York and near the Hudson (Saratoga, etc.) winding up coming towards,  but not including,  the last battles in the South.

The way it’s covered seems spotty or choppy at first glance,  but the focus is on the personalities as well as the battle proficiency of George Washington and Benedict Arnold plus Horatio Gates,  John Andre and a few others.   This is the information which is indispensable to fully appreciate the completely  absorbing latter half of the book.  And it’s so fascinating I read and reread,  took notes and completely enjoyed the ride.

Apparently there were some in the US military and population  who wanted independence from Britain  not only out of a love of freedom,  but also out of personal ambition,  for money,  property and personal advantage.  – (Is this a big surprise in 2016?)

Arnold did NOT simply one day up and join the enemy –  it took quite a lot for him to finally go to those lengths –  plus the love of a Loyalist woman – and his love of money.  He was incredibly brave and served his country well until he thought perhaps they weren’t very appreciative of all it had cost him.

Washington was not always thought to be the decisive and inspiring leader we’ve grown up learning about.  At the time there were plenty who thought he was doing a rather poor job of it and pushed their own personal ambitions.    The Congress in Philadelphia, such as it was, sometimes seemed more interested in their own little plots and schemes than in providing for the military.  Philbrick gets into the specifics of these things which contributed heavily to a war of Independence that we almost didn’t win.  But for all that – we do know the ending.

Highly recommended for those interested and with a bit of background in the American Revolution as a whole.

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The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

This is yet another reread – I first read (and listened to) The Mathematician’s Funeral back in February just because I found it on Audible and it looked good,  kind of fun.  But from the narrative it was apparent there were little diagrams included in the text and I wanted to see those – so I also got the ebook.  Wow!  Delightful!  And I knew a group which would likely really enjoy the book so I nominated it even though I almost never nominate books I’ve already read.  But it was just so enjoyable, fun.


The Mathematician’s Shiva
by Stuart Rojstaczer
2014 / 370 pages
read by  Angela Brazil, Stephen R. Thorne  10h 38m
rating –  8.5 (lots of fun included in rating)

And it was selected so I’m rereading it – to make sure I can contribute to the discusison without having to rely on my memory of 40 – 50  books ago.  

Eleven years after the fact,  Sasha Karnokovich is remembering his mother’s funeral and shiva.
Rachela Karnokovich,  who had been living in Madison Wisconsin for many years,  was a world-renowned mathematician and although Sasha would have liked to have kept her funeral and shiva  private,  the mathematician friends arrived in droves.  They came to pay honor to her memory,  but also to see if they couldn’t find her work on the Navier-Stokes problem which they had all been working on for years,  trying to come up with the solution.  These chapters are sometimes heartwarming,  sometimes a bit silly,  sometimes a bit sad.

But there was so much more to Rachela than her mathematical mind,  more than being a sister, a wife and a mother.  She was an individual with her own life – that’s what the memoir shows us.

Interspersed with the chapters from 1st person Sasha are chapters comprised of excerpts of Rachela’s memoirs.  These chapters mostly take place in Stalinist Russia,  in the work camps and later at the university.  Some of her work was plagiarized and the culprit won an award for it.   Her childhood made an indelible imprint on her whole life. The writing here is of a different tone and gives a depth and texture to the whole novel.  I kind of missed that the first time.

I suppose in some ways this second reading wasn’t quite as compelling as the first,  but it was still great fun,  like visiting old friends.  And there were a few new aspects as well as those remembered.

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Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm

In the Prologue (Kindle locations 292-294) Helm states her premise perfectly:

I understood now what this book should be: a biography of Ravensbrück beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could. The book would try to throw light on the Nazis’ crimes against women, showing, at the same time, how an understanding of what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story.


Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women
by Sarah Helm  – (Knopf Doubleday) 
2014/ 788 pages  (hard cover) 
rating – 10 –   non-fiction history 


I say  perfectly because she does just exactly that – details as much as possible the life, from beginning to end,  of  the only  Nazi concentration camp specifically for women – Ravensbruck.

The narrative is chronological for the most part and a mix of dry and riveting – makes for  slow reading at first but picks up considerably in Part 2 ( out of 6).    I was more impressed by the descriptions of what was happening at the policy level than with life in the barrack although it is the life in the barracks part that makes this book different and really stand out.

It’s just that there’s so much brutality and pain and it’s quite a slog at times,  but absolutely necessary for the impact to be made.  There’s  loyalty and sacrifice and love amongst the prisoners as well as some treachery.  These were real women, not characters in a novel,  and they were


Ravensbrúck statue

completely dehumanized and then treated like sick cattle or criminals.  There were Jews,  gentiles married to Jews,  prostitutes,  Marxists and Jehovah’s Witnesses along with gypsies and other “worthless mouths.”    I felt I owed it to them to listen – they told their tales in notes smuggled through and then in diaries and letters and finally in court documents. A few were even interviewed by the author.

I was surprised at the number of Jehovah’s
Witnesses assigned there and their brave determination not to bow in any way to Hitler or his war.   I knew some Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up although I never really knew why or how many –  I thought it was just a few but nope – there were several thousand.  Anyone who opposed Hitler in any way, including being handicapped by birth,  Jewish,  gypsy,  Marxist,  or a foreigner was vulnerable to the camps.  The  majority of women at Ravensbruck  were not  Jewish,  but were there for opposing Hitler in some way including being of the criminal element, prostitution and being “asocial” (lazy ).

Actually,  almost as many non-Jewish people died in the German camps as Jews:  This book seems to cover the variety and Helm seems to emphasize the nationalities of those interred – it’s quite interesting.

The heroines are one focus here – Elsa Krug,    Olga Benario, Helena Korewina,  Doris Maase, Hanna Sturm,  Kathe Rentmeister,  Krysia Czyz (!),   Yevgenia Klem, Zdenka Nedvedova, Maria Klyugman,  Zoya Savel’eva, Sylvia Salvesen,   Yevgenia Lazarevna, Valentina Makarova, and many, many other women did amazing things in order to survive or help their co-prisoners. They got messages to each other and to the outside,  they sabotaged the work effort,  brought extra food for some,  the doctor prisoners tried to help,  they comforted each other,  one told stories,  some sang.   The Russian women from Stalingrad were exceptional.

Ravensbrück, Konzentrationslager

prisoners of Ravensbruck

The other prisoners,  those with just a name,  are another focus – they were all victims,  even the guards who were often co-opted prisoners.

And there were specially evil people,  Himmler and some of his SS folks,  like Hoss, Karl Gebhardt, Percival Triete,  Fritz Suhren,  and others.   The truly sadistic Ludwig Ramdohr is singled out for special attention – hated even by many in the SS for his spies and mission to end corruption.

Sad to say yes,  some prisoners did succumb and turn informant – probably quite a few considering the torture.

At Ravensbruck the camp’s job increasingly became simply to provide for the German war effort – uniforms and arms.  The output was demanding – when the starved slave labor couldn’t keep up they were killed.   “As long as prisoners were fit for work they were to be kept alive.”  (loc 6397)

It would seem that there was no agreement among the general population to see it as  Hitler saw it –  to agree with what he was doing (if they knew).  They simply had to hush up about opposing him.  Without Hitler there would still have been a war,  but without Hitler there would never have been a Holocaust in part because the real 2nd in command creeps – Himmler,  Eichmann, Goring,  Goebbels would never have risen to such prominence – imo.

Of note –  a couple Nazi collaborating factories are mentioned notably  Siemens but there were many more.

The Red Cross of Germany apparently refused to do anything about the conditions in the camps.  They wouldn’t even tell the world – which they were mandated to do  – and they definitely did know what was going on.

The messages of Krysia Czyz via her family finally got connected to a Polish cell in Sweden who telegraphed a message to London.  Still,  no one did anything –  not the Red Cross, not the Vatican – word would get out but would not spread.

Toward the end there were 22 countries represented at Ravensbruck – as well as a very large number of yellow stars (Jews) – some protected because they were not from Germany.

The book is a biography of Ravensbruck and it’s long and it wears a person out just reading it.  The scope is from the inception to the how things are today –  the structure is used to focus on the women themselves and their lives within the camps and then out examine how this fit with Nazi strategy as a whole.   I would get quite tired of reading the horrors of the camp – sickened is perhaps a better word – and then it would change to what was happening in the world at large.   Virtually everything not personal and given more than a one-time mention  can be online but it’s the combination added to the personal issues unfolding at Ravensbruk which provides the impact.

US – awareness project – Washington Post 4/12/2016

The sole aim of Hitler’s concentration camps in the early days was to crush all internal German opposition; only once this had been done would other objectives be pursued.

Helm, Sarah (2015-03-31). Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (Kindle Locations 467-468). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

By 1936 not only was the political opposition entirely eliminated, but humanitarian bodies and the German churches were all toeing the line.

(Kindle Locations 531-532)

In 1936 500 German housewives carrying bibles and wearing neat white headscarves arrived at Moringen. The women, Jehovah’s Witnesses, had protested when their husbands were called up for the army. Hitler was the Antichrist, they said; God was the ruler on earth, not the Führer. Their husbands, and other male Jehovah’s Witnesses, were taken to Hitler’s newest camp, Buchenwald, where they suffered twenty-five lashes of a leather whip.

(Kindle Locations 571-574)

What the ICRC  (Red Cross) was trying to do: preserving ‘neutrality’ was so much more important. There may well have been those on the Committee who feared too that sending the parcels would offend Ernst Grawitz, head of the German Red Cross.

(Kindle Locations 8400-8401)



World Death Camps CNN – world/nazi-death-camps/  (2015)

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The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

I would never have chosen this book because I’m not crazy about Greene and his anxiety about Catholic righteousness.  Oh well – this one is supposed to be pretty good and it was re-released in 2011, a good sign.

Major Henry Scobie is a police commissioner working somewhere in West Africa circa WWII.  He likes it there,  likes his job,  and loves his wife, Louise.  He should be  a happy man,  right?  Wrong – Louise is not happy at all – she feels she has no friends and wants to go to South Africa.  Scobie feels it’s his responsibility to make her happy.   The only child of the couple died a few years prior and Scobie feels a lot of guilt as well as self-pity.



The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene
1948 /  288 pages
read by Michael Kitchen 10h 6m
rating:  8 / classic  – an extra point for being a classic  

Why Sierra Leon  or the Ivory Coast or wherever?  It’s not for the scenery or the population because there’s almost nothing about that sort of thing – just enough to know it’s a distant land with a hugely varied population.  More likely the novel is set there to give a slight distancing to the whole situation and more sympathy for the protagonist . He’s a police officer,  alone in a war zone distant from home.   Scobie’s first transgression, against his job,  involves a clemency,  a mercy to a deserving suspect.

But he has embarked on a slippery slope – his wife gets to leave with the help of an ill advised loan.  Then he meets a devastated young widow who needs him  and well –  he’s just trying to help –   poor, sad man.

Also,  Africa gives the protagonist access to illicit funds, smuggled diamonds,  a man from another culture with different values who will “understand” and help –  I suppose with some thought this could mostly have been achieved in  London – only the distancing would be missing.   Because of that distancing we’re better able to understand that Scobie is a very good man who is in a strange and lonely place where he feels unappreciated at work and unloved by his wife. Furthermore he has none of the resources he would have in London – old friends,  family, activities.  He becomes sympathetic in a way he would not have been in the city.

Major Scobie is a good Catholic man – he wants always to do the right thing which he interprets as being in the good graces of the Church.   He doesn’t lie, steal, cheat, commit adultery or any number of other things.    He’s very proud of his “goodness”  and sticks to it.  He goes to mass  and has a very legalistic view of religion.  But!  he does little things like tearing up letters from suspicious persons when he finds they’re innocuous  –  this is against regulations and Scobie tries to follow the laws and regulations of the government and the injunctions of the Church.

Scobie’s depressed wife Louise really, really wants to go to South Africa.  So Scobie has to find the money and he accepts a loan from this disreputable man who deals in illicit diamonds.  Then he does something else akin to lying.  Then he … well .. yes. He errs in many ways and struggles with his choices – or lack of them.  And then he starts really feeling sorry for himself and wonders if everyone feels pity for him –  that pretty well tears at his pride.  Scobie is a very proud man – hasn’t thought he needed forgiveness because has committed no sins – until now – and he can’t face himself,  face those he’s hurt,  face his God.   It’s depressing –

Pity seems to be Scobie’s whole concept of love –  he feels sorry for his wife,  sorry for the man with the letter,  sorry for the young widow –  he mostly feels sorry for himself.

“The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride.”  Greene in the  Introduction to the novel. 

Greene writes very nicely with  interesting metaphors and believable characters in psychological torment.  Still, I’m really rather bored with his issues of existential despair played out against the backdrop of Church regulations and commandments.   He’s searching for a meaningful life and for love but can’t let go of the need for Church approval.   Where is one to find meaning? –

I’ve now read three of Graham’s books saying the same thing in different shells –   The Power and the Glory (Mexico 1930s,   pub 1940),  The End of the Affair (1951 – London Blitz of 1940  – pub 1951) – and this one (Africa WWII – pub 1948).   –   Some poor man trying to be a good Catholic is trying to align his human passions (lust) with the  Church and/or state in addition to other women,  etc.    The protagonist struggles with this and always feels guilty and overwhelmed with disgust and self-pity because of  illicit love – but he can’t stop himself from loving – which is what he really thinks the rules are requiring.  –  What kind of a God would condemn a man for loving?    –

I think this message probably had a lot more impact in 1950,  when it was perceived as being truly realistic considering the higher moral standards the Church had at the time, higher than they are now after the 2nd Vatican of 1965.    I doubt men and women these days worry too much about Church condemnation as a result of adultery – they  tend to feel guilty for breaking the trust of their partner – for hurting the other party.   They were angry that divorced folks are not able to take communion (until very recently).   The Church has become a bit obsolete for most folks as a result of archaic prohibitions on birth control,  divorce,  etc.

Fwiw,  these three books pretty much follow Graham’s own life – he was stationed in Sierra Leon,  was a womanizer,  converted to Catholicism for his second wife and then later reverted to some kind of agnostic/atheism,  etc  as he left her for yet another woman.

And as a kind of aside – I also read Travels with My Aunt which was hilarious but it was first published in 1969 and I read it in the early 1970s so it was timely.

1948 review in New York Times

A more recent and positive review:
LA Review of Books – 2012:

William Boyd on Greene – (church and morality)

A Psychoanalytic  Reading  (PDF – University of Arad, Romania)

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Disclaimer by Reneé Knight

I’m not sure what kind of genre or category this book fits into –  general psychological suspense although it doesn’t really matter except for my rating and there,  because of the “all for the sake of the tension,” element,   it’s more of a genre book than literary.   The suspense  is based on an old secret of Catherine Ravencroft which apparently someone else knows because 20 years after the fact she receives a book which details the whole series of events in novel form.  – It would seem that only the names have been changed to protect  –  ? –  the guilty?

by Reneé Knight
2015 / 352 pages (Harper) 
read by Michael Pennington and Laura Paton – 8h 25m
rating:   B-  / psychological suspense 

So of course the narrative switches to the 1st person narrative of Stephen Brigstock,  the co-author (I guess would be the word) of the book although it was really the work of his wife prior to her death 8 years prior.   He tells us how he came to find the manuscript,  reproduce it,  get it printed and deliver it.  Brigstock wants revenge

The structure of the book is comprised of alternating sections with Catherine,  her husband and Brigstock, getting their own voices as well as  alternating between 2013 and two years prior which catches up to spring and summer,  2013, although there are a few chapters which take place in Spain about 20 years prior.

Who is reliable?  Only Brigstock is 1st person,  but the other 3rd person narrators are intimate enough we get pretty well inside their heads – they may not be reliable in what they report to others or to themselves.

A really interesting part of this book is that there is “a book within the book” – yes,  the contents of the book which has upset Catherine so badly is revealed in some of the alternating sections.  Without that the book would have been far less interesting another case of unreliable narrators battling it out ala Gone Girl ( Gillian Flynn).   But  with the extra version of events,  that of the book,  the tension multiplies.

Virtually no chuckles here,  but about half way through Brigstock describes what he sees in a coffee shop:   “… youngsters: drinks on the table, cigarettes standing by, faces ready to break into laughter. All normal. It could have been a scene from any decade, except they weren’t speaking. There was no conversation. They weren’t even looking at each other. Their eyes were down, on their phones, like a bunch of old ladies checking their bingo cards.”   LOL!

Also, a bit irritating are the graphic sex scenes (to me) –  and the emotional manipulation is over the top which results in the reader’s sympathies switching from one character to another,  back and forth – it’s pretty exhausting – annoying after awhile.

NY Times review by Janet Maslin:

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Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick

This looked interesting and was on my wish list even before it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.  So picking up that award brought it to the top – and here we are.
Actually,  the book was coming along so nicely I wanted a bit more – so I got the Kindle version where there are maps and lists of characters etc.

I’ve not read all that much about ISIS so I really need a bit of a background in order to catch up and this felt  like it was the right book for it –  where did Zarqawi come from and how did it all come to what we have today?


Black Flags:  The Rise of Isis
by Joby Warrick
2015 / 368 pages
read by Sunil Malhotra  13h 33m
rating –  9 /  general nonfiction

I had to read the Prologue  twice –  I listened, then bought the Kindle version and started over.   Good thinking – there’s a lot of material here,  a lot of names,  places and events – it’s an overview of sorts.

This is the story of how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian and veteran of the battles in Afghanistan,  came to form the now infamous ISIS,  a  group of many thousands  bent on the destruction of the old corrupt regimes in the Middle East and the West in general, specifically Israel,  Europe and the US.  Zarqawi  was joined by a small group of radical Islamic thugs,  the ousted leaders and military from the old regime in Iraq which the US (in all its wisdom) simply removed when they took out Saddam Hussein.  They apparently had some unwitting help from a few other people including the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.  And even after Zarqawi was killed there remained a small tight group under the leadership and training of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which managed to use what was left to take advantage of the civil war in Syria.

Warrick starts his story with a Prologue dealing with the February, 2015 execution of Sajida al-Rishawi,  “Zarqawi’s woman.”  She had been the suicide bomber whose vest failed to explode back in the terrorist attack in the horrendous  2005 bombings in Jordan.  Now she was finally being executed but ISIS  wanted her back –  they were claiming her – and that was the point – there had been no real ISIS in 2005 – by 2013 they were an army.

The story of the execution of al-Rishawi bookends the Prologue. The interior covers the crime she was convicted of as well as the “ties” between ISIS and al-Qaeda; the incredible growth in strength due to the erroneous  “connection” between Zarquawi and Iraq were  involved in 9/11;  the attacks on Iraqi Shiite communities,  the naming of their group ISIS, the reluctance of the US to get involved after a couple of  botched attempts and more.  It gets scary:

In the prophetic passages of the Muslim holy texts known as the Hadith, Zarqawi saw his fate foretold. He and his men were the black-clad soldiers of whom the ancient scholars had written: “The black flags will come from the East, led by mighty men, with long hair and beards, their surnames taken from their home towns.” These conquerors would not merely reclaim the ancient Muslim lands. They also would be the instigators of the final cataclysmic struggle ending in the destruction of the West’s great armies, in northern Syria. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq,” Zarqawi preached, “and its heat will continue to intensify until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

Warrick, Joby (2015-09-29). Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (pp. 8-9). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is a really well conceived, nicely organized and well  written book.   There’s a basic chronological order,  but because there are so many threads which have their own backgrounds Warrick has to use some digressions to weave them in. He does this with perfect timing.

Chapter 1 takes the story back to the Ikhwan  the origins of al-Jafr, the notorious Jordanian prison built by the British, abandoned in 1979 then re-established in 1998 for  a bunch of seriously hardened criminals with militant Islamic leanings (invented by Maqdisi)   and an anti-government crusade.  The enforcer for Maqdisi’s prison group was al-Zarquwi (“the one from Zarqa”), a very complex person,  but completely charismatic.

Chapter 2 is a recap of Jordan history,  it’s recent leaders and their difficulties, the new King’s decisions – most importantly,  the release of 2500 prisoners – this was 1999:

Many months would pass before Abdullah learned that list had included certain Arab Afghans from the al-Jafr Prison whose Ikhwan-like zeal for purifying the Islamic faith should have disqualified them instantly. But by that time, the obscure jihadist named Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh had become the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Warrick, Joby (2015-09-29). Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (p. 43). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Reading through some reviews I’ve been interested enough to try ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan-Hassan and/or ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger – both with somewhat more current information.

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A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

Okay so I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy but I’ve never felt like I completely understood it.  And I’d forget it pretty quickly so that’s probably proof I didn’t really grasp the concepts.

This book presents the philosophers and the highlights of their ideas so clearly and in such a well thought-out manner that I’m tickled to death to read it.  It’s probably a bit under my level of understanding on some of them,  but a review never hurt.


A Little History of Philosophy
by Nigel Warburton
2011 /  288 pages
read by Kris Dyer  7h 35m
rating:  9

Chronological order is the obvious structure for a book like this – and that’s the way almost all authors of philosophy books do their little overviews.   I was familiar with most of the philosophers and their ideas but there were a few whose ideas remained obscure – and probably still do.

The book goes on from Spinoza through Wittgenstein and  Sartre all the way to the ideas of artificial intelligence as well as the really contemporary Peter Singer.  There’s not a whole lot of material on any of them but there aren’t any  difficult original passages to read as there were in the book by Stewart Goetz  and Charles Taliaferro,  A Brief History of the Soul which I read back in September of 2015. I suppose if one or another of the philosophers presented catches your eye you can search out other material.

Warburton writes well,  the ideas are chosen and presented carefully,  and he uses a lot of examples.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one –  if you’re interested in western philosophy from Socrates to today but don’t have much of a background in it I really recommend this.

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