Category Archives: Nonfiction – History

Review: Dirty Gold (Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney)

Dirty Gold explores illegal (wildcat) mining (mainly) in Peru, and the dubious ways gold brokers – such as those detailed in this book – manage to sell or obtain that gold to be recycled and sold to other entities or made into consumer goods.

I’ll say this right off the bat: writers of narrative nonfiction could use this as a textbook. It is intelligently laid out, the cast of characters not only denoted before the book begins, but named and described in the text in a way that does not require constant flipping to the beginning to see who is who, the history of illegal mining given (but not in an overwhelming way) along with the sociological, economic, corruption, and political ties to it, and how the various schemes worked to get the gold out of South America. It’s masterful.

At its base, this book is about three men in Miami – Juan Pablo Granda, Samer Barrage, and Renato Rodriguez, dubbed the three amigos – working on behalf of a larger company, manage to bring an astonishing $3,6 billion worth of mainly Peruvian gold to their company. In doing so, both they, and their primary local buyer in Peru, go to a great number of steps to obscure the actual origin of the gold. Those steps include the creation of fake/shell companies, smuggling Peruvian gold to other countries in order to export it to the US, and failed or too-loose vetting of the supposed exporting companies in Peru that declared the gold obtained in a legal manner.

If you’re interested in anything related to gold, money laundering, smuggling, political and law enforcement corruption, sociological, ecological, and health impacts of illegal mining, and the utter chasm between those riding high on the backs of those in abject poverty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Absolutely a five out of five star read. I’d also recommend “A Most Wicked Conspiracy”, about the Alaskan gold rush, another five star read.

Thanks to Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Ravine (Wendy Lower)

In 2009, Wendy Lower (author of Hitler’s Furies , another worthy book to add to your TBR list) comes across a photo from Miropol, Ukraine: a woman, toddler in her arms, baby at her feet, being shot by a Ukrainian collaborator during operations in that country during WWII. The title refers to the ravine into which people fell after being executed for no reason other than they were not part of the so-called “master race”.

What follows is an excellent, although horrifying read, of Lower’s investigation into this photo. This entails records retrieved in various countries – the US, Ukraine, Germany, and Israel – talking with people and/or potential witnesses, and eventually spans ten years to finally identify the doomed family as well as the Slovakian photographer who was not supposed to be taking pictures of these operations.

If you’re at all interested in the Holocaust or the European Theater of Operations during WWII, you’ll likely be as engrossed in this book as I was, even given – or especially because of the book’s subject, something no one should ever forget.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Nine (Gwen Strauss)

Full title:

The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany

How do people withstand the most horrific abuses performed by a nation led by a madman?

There are many books about soldiers surviving what were basically death camps when they were taken prisoner, about well planned and executed escapes, about spies hanging on, in hiding, while an entire militarized police force look for them.

The Nine has all of that, and more. It’s the story of nine women, resistance fighters in WWII, captured and interrogated by French police before being sent off to Germany for interrogation by the Gestapo and ultimately imprisoned at a work camp.

The primary focus is on the author’s great aunt Hélène Podliasky, who ultimately became the de facto leader of the group as they met one another in their journey from freedom to prison and back to freedom again.

Where this book shines comes after all of that – after the beatings, the torture, the forced work, and all manner of atrocities. As Germany was facing defeat, some of the camps, including the one housing The Nine, were sent on forced marches, to move prisoners from outlying areas about to be overrun, to prisons closer to what was left in German hands. During their march, they took a chance and fled the march, running into the forest, heading for France.

This journey, free of guards and the wire of prisons, wasn’t any easier than that. Along the way, they found both people willing to help them, and people who had no interest in doing so, preferring to turn them in. They also found those who wanted to use them for their own ends – soldiers, for instance, who thought the Allies would look more favorably on them if they were found assisting a group of former prisoners.

The author is a poet, and it shows. It’s a fantastic piece of narrative nonfiction, although I would say that if you’re just dipping your toes into the water of the cruelest parts of WWII, or if you’re just learning about it, you might want to start with a broader history first, to understand the whole of the war, then narrow to the final days of the European theater before reading this. Doing so will better inform the reader about that particular point in the war, and how the engineered system developed by the German leadership was breaking down.

Much like Night (Elie Wiesel, another must-read), The Nine captures the sense of how it was to live with daily atrocities, and how people came through them.

Highly recommended – a five star read.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy

Pub date: May 4, 2021

Review: Heroes of the RNLI (Martyn R Beardsley)

Almost 200 years ago, Sir William Hillary was key in forming the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – an organized rescue service made up of people fearless (or scared but willing to do it anyway) enough to head out into gales and storms and anything else the sea could throw at boats and ships to rescue anyone who could be rescued. In his time, of course, those rescue attempts were often just people oaring their way out into the sea. These days, the rescues are more high tech, but no less hair-raising at times.

This book is not so much just a history of the service, but a book of many of the more exciting/dramatic/history-making rescues, with the history of the service woven in here and there as the summaries of those rescues move forward in time. Some of them (Grace Darling) are more well known outside the UK than others – most others, I would say. They all, however, encapsulate quite well the deeds of people willing to risk their own lives to save others.

If you like real life rescue stories, and derring-do on the sea, you’ll likely enjoy this collection of stories and the history sailing underneath them.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (Roland Ennos)

I’m a sucker for a single-item “history of” books. The best books of this nature, I’ve found, are those that are telling a *story* of the history versus those that are simply a history. Books like Salt (Mark Kulansky) or Longitude (Dava Sobel) are terrific examples of the narrative nonfiction that will pull the reader in to the world of the subject, riding along like a time traveler following a single strand of history.

There were instances where I felt that same tug from The Age of Wood, but unfortunately, I found them to be rare. The book is still quite interesting, chasing down the use of wood over the centuries and to the current day, assuming you’re interested in a rather dry overall tone.

Those with an acute interest in wood, or people just looking to learn something on the subject will likely be more willing to get through an almost textbook-like reading than the casual reader, and it’s worth it, in my opinion. It’s relatively short, which brought to my mind the question of whether the storytelling was not enough to push it to a longer page count and more relaxed narrative, or whether the publisher or author decided about 300 pages was all they were willing to venture into the subject. Either way, the book suffers for it.

There are numerous discussions of things built with wood versus metal, and a somewhat questionable (to me) passage about Amazonian deforestation, and into the modern time period, quite a bit of page count given over to metal – not what I was here for.

Overall, it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, for a book about a resource indispensable to humans ancient and modern, which I’d think is a fascinating topic.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: War of Shadows (Gershom Gorenberg)

If you’re interested in WWII, and specifically, the North African Theater battles between the Desert Fox himself and British forces, this is a book for you.,

Gorenberg helpfully provides a listing of all the players at the front of the book, so if you’re not intimately familiar with everything that was going on in the chaos of North Africa, you’ll find that handy, The story, at its heart. is about people: their victories, but also their great failures. Both are abundant here – it is a war, after all.

It’s a dense book, and requires attention. Here and there, it strays a little outside the lines (and it is clear the author is both very familiar with and very passionate about the period examined during these periods). However, it is a worthy read, an these occasional ramblings are worth it in the overall scheme of things.

Four and a half stars out of five, for the rambles, rounded up to five for a well-written and entertaining (as entertaining as war can be) book.

Thanks to Perseus Books/Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.