"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Monday, January 21, 2013

Under the Wire: Bestselling WWII Memoir of an American Spitfire Pilot and Legendary POW Escape-Artist by William Ash and Brendan Foley

Re-published by CreateSpace in November 2012.

Despite the fact that this will be the third posting of the year for me, this was actually the first book that I read in 2013 and it may very well be the best book that I will read all year.

William Ash, now age 95, and his co-author Brendan Foley have created an immensely readable, very enjoyable story about young Bill Ash, an American who joined the Brits in fighting the Nazis by flying a Spitfire (a fighter plane) before America even joined the war.

Ash begins his story by telling about the difficulties of growing up in the Great Depression in Texas. Somehow, he managed to get a college degree, even though there were no jobs to be found for this new college grad. So, he hit the road, riding trains, traveling the country and living in hobo camps. One day he heard that the Canadians were looking for fighter pilots to send to England and they would even take Americans who renounced their citizenship.

The last operating Spitfire to survive The Battle of Britain.
Photo by Adrian Pingstone in 2008.
Ash's reasons for joining are a rather vague mishmash of looking for adventure, wanting a steady paycheck, wanting to fly and wanting to fight the Nazis, but that's okay. The story has been good so far and it only gets better as Ash talks about the joys of a full belly and learning to fly. Soon enough, he's off to England and set up in a Spitfire, England's hotshot iconic fighter plane of the war.

Ash's description of this plane and the way it handled makes you love it and appreciate the skill of Ash and all of his comrades. Eventually, as indicated by the lengthy title of this book, Ash is shot down over France. The story of how he hides for weeks from the Germans and eventually ends up in a POW camp is told in an entertaining and suspenseful manner.

In fact, the book is quite remarkable - it somehow manages to keep a sense of tension alive throughout the book even though the reader knows how it all ends after reading the three page Foreward. Bill Ash survives the war despite being shot out of the sky and being kept in multiple POW camps. He makes an incredible number of escape attempts, trying for a "home run" (a successful run all of the way back to Allied territory). But, Bill's sense of humor shines through and you just keep rooting for this crazy character who starts plotting his next escape as he sits through the solitary confinement he received as punishment for attempting his last escape.

The story can be heartbreaking, often gritty and matter-of-fact about abuses he and his fellow prisoners endured. I was struck by the descriptions of how they dug tunnels under the fence. If you have seen the movie The Great Escape, you know the basics of how it was done but Ash and Foley's re-telling is so vivid and visceral that it caused me to have a claustrophobic panic attack (I suffer from claustrophobia). I had to put the book down and then I picked it up and finished that section so I wouldn't have to go through two panic attacks. It is that good.

But, none of this detail would matter if you just didn't love Bill Ash, his sense of humor and his ever-hopeful personality.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Under the Wire.

Reviewed on January 21, 2013.

Note: I received a copy of this book from one of the authors, Brendan Foley, in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, this is a fantastic read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (audiobook) by Henry Wiencek

Published by HighBridge Company in 2012
Read by Brian Holsopple
Duration: 11 hours, 5 minutes.

I am a history teacher. My favorite area of study is the American Civil War but the American Revolution comes in at a close second. I cannot even count the number of books that I have read about the Revolutionary Era and I thought that I had a pretty solid handle on Jefferson - until I read this book.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
I had always pictured Jefferson as a Unitarian (who was willing to go "more" religious for political reasons) who wrote eloquently about freedom and tyranny but somehow compartmentalized this in his own life when it came to slavery. Or, was unable to free his slaves due to crushing debts incurred because he was a philosopher and not a businessman.

The debts are always mentioned, usually in conjunction with the renovations to Monticello, reinforcing the impression that the philosopher was happily spending his way to oblivion for the sake of beauty and architecture, thus adding an air of tragedy to Jefferson. Poor Mr. Jefferson, he wanted to free his slaves but his profligate spending on esoterics caused him to have to compromise his ideals and keep his slaves. Poor Jefferson, he always wanted to free his slaves, but he could never get the law changed to make him do it. Poor Jefferson, circumstances made him look like a hypocrite.

Poor Mr. Jefferson, indeed.

Weincek looks at Jefferson's plantation records, the archaeological record, Jefferson's own writings and what other slave-owning planters did to fight slavery or make it more humane. The picture of Jefferson the slave-owner has forever been changed in my mind thanks to this book.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) giving his "I Have a
Dream" Speech in 1963.
Note: I will always revere Jefferson for his ability to point the way, even if he had no intent of going that way, especially in his older years. After all, Jefferson's soaring prose in the Declaration of Independence is America's mission statement and was the catalyst of so much good work. For example, take this line from MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 

Clearly, Jefferson inspired this and so much more.

But, back to this book. Wiencek goes into sometimes laborious detail into what Jefferson was up to at Monticello. He looks into his plans to grow his plantation into much more than a glorified farm. Instead, it was becoming a self-sufficient economic unit that actually created and sold manufactured goods to the outside world. My impression was that Jefferson moved from being an idealistic anti-slavery agitator to a feudal lord who outright owned his slaves rather than having to depend on serfs.

Jefferson encouraged his slaves to breed (their population grew at 4% per year, meaning their numbers would double every 18 years). The slaves were worth more than gold - after all, gold does not reproduce itself and does not literally work for you. Slaves would make more slaves, work for you and serve as collateral so that he could borrow money to expand his operations.

The last third of the book or so is devoted to the Sally Hemings controversy. Did Thomas Jefferson have children with her or not? Wiencek thoroughly covers this topic, but I think he oversteps what can be completely known by declaring Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings' children. The DNA evidence shows that a Jefferson did it and Wiencek eliminates the alibis that would exonerate Jefferson. But, I think that the best assertion that can be made is that Thomas Jefferson probably is the father of her children. However, the topic has to be included in the book because it is about Jefferson and his slaves and the Hemings children were clearly treated differently than the other slaves.

I was particularly interested in learning about Edward Coles and how he freed his slaves. His correspondence with Jefferson is illuminating and is a study in Jefferson's ability to be publicly  for something (ending slavery) but doing nothing to achieve it and even working actively against it.

Brian Holsopple's narration was very good in that I really did not notice it - it was clearly delivered and his reading of the text was free of insinuation, even when Jefferson's hypocrisy was at its most obvious. He played it straight and let the text speak for itself, which should be the goal of every reader of histories.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. I thought hard about this and I just cannot sanction the outright naming of Jefferson as the father of the Hemings children. This is a tremendous book in all other aspects, though and I highly recommend it.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Master of the Mountain.

Reviewed on January 20, 2012.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tough Guys and Drama Queens: How Not To Get Blindsided by Your Child's Teen Years by Mark Gregston

Published in 2012 by Thomas Nelson

Mark Gregston brings his expertise and experience gained from working with troubled teens for nearly 40 years to a book full of practical advice about how parents can prepare themselves and their teens for the dreaded teen years.

Gregston discusses parenting techniques that don't work (basically, don't be a helicopter parent and don't let your kids fend for themselves too early) and emphasizes the most important thing that keeps teens and their parents connected is a strong relationship. The relationship is key, especially in a larger culture that may not share your values.

Keeping that relationship strong requires lots of quality time and requires parents to not create a stifling environment that makes teens feel like a prisoner in their homes (We all know they are not prisoners, but the book's title does make a point about drama queens).  Gregston includes lists of rules he recommends, lots of examples of when to be firm and when to back off and what to do when your teen makes a mistake.

This book is highly readable and provides a lot practical advice, even if I didn't agree with it 100%.

I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Tough Guys and Drama Queens.

Reviewed on January 18, 2013.

I received this book for free as part of Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program in exchange for an honest review.