Good Reads: A Small Death in Lisbon

A Small Death in Lisbon is a murder mystery story based mostly in Portugal and alternating between modern day and WWII. It is a light and quick read thsmall-death-in-lisbonat mostly follows a traditional thriller crime plot.  You follow the investigation of a murder by two Lisbon detectives on the fringes of their peer group.  There are plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting as a crime story.  But it will be particularly interesting to those who have visited or are visiting Lisbon with all its references to the city and its neighborhoods, foods and customs. Also, the WWII sub story shines an interesting light on Portugal during that time and as a crucial supplier of tungsten to both the British and Nazi war efforts.

It is a worthwhile accompaniment to your trip to Portugal, especially Lisbon.

Book Review: The Cost of Courage

The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser is a heart-wrenching,  true story about a French 25579035-_uy200_bourgeois family whose three (of four) children joined the French Resistance during WWII.  This is gripping read and page turner from page one wondering what happens to the individual family members. The Boulloche family repeatedly demonstrated courage, dignity and humility during the most difficult of times and paid the ultimate price for their patriotism. Certain family members would continue to serve their country and the citizens of France after the war.  The author is the the nephew of an American soldier who billeted with the family at the end of the war and who grew up hearing his uncle’s stories about the family.  Thankfully, Kaiser documented the Boulloche’s story in The Cost of Courage.  For those interested in books on WWII, this is another must read.


In the Garden of Beasts

Biking through France has made me hungry for books on WWII, and there arein the garden of beasts plenty of good reads on this topic.  After reading All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale which are both fiction novels, I picked up In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson which is a non-fiction book about the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family’s experience living in Berlin from 1933 (as Hitler is coming into power as Chancellor) to 1937.  Although this is non-fiction, it reads more like a historical fiction novel, and I found it to be a quick read.

The book raises a lot of questions, but a key question raised (and attempted to answer) is why the US government did not speak out and/ or take any action given Hitler’s barbarism.  For example (and only one of so many), in 1934, the Nazi regime unilaterally carried out a series of political executions of Germans who were thought to oppose Hitler (this act was later known as “The Night of Long Knives”).  To Dodd’s credit, he warned President Roosevelt and others of the risk of another world war. Had the US and other countries done something in response to Hitler’s atrocities could WWII have been circumvented?

Well researched and written, this is a fascinating read about Hitler’s accession to power and Dodd’s experience as US Ambassador in Berlin in the years leading up to WWII.  In my opinion, the one downside of the book is that there is too much time spent on Dodd’s daughter’s, Martha, social connections and love life, but regardless, another compelling read.

Slaying the Badger

This was a fun read – especially while we were spending a couple weeks following this year’s Tour de France.  With a bit of bus travel and more than a few hours waiting for the peloton during our trip, we knew that we would have some time to dig into a few good books.  Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France fit the bill for me. This was a fantastic read that sucked me in from the first pages (yeck!).  It is a fascinating reporting on the 1986 Tour de France which was the first Tour that featured a team from the States and ended with the first winner from the States, Greg LeMond. It was also the last Tour for Bernard Hinault – a hugely popular French cycling legend who today is still very influential and prominent in French cycling.

The story line revolves around the inter-team fireworks between the two leaders Hinault and LeMond and their agreement that frustrated both but also set the context for one of the most entertaining races in its history. Ultimately,  the outcome solidified Hinault’s French popularity and position as a bit of a folk hero and LeMond as the first winner of the race from the USA and also a pivotal player in increasing salaries and the free market model in professional cycling.

Really? No helmets in ’86

It’s a story of characters – from the leaders, the managers, the owners and even the Tour’s officials. All involved seem to have been a bit off balanced at best.  It’s a fast, enlightening and fun read. Though, it is very much an “inside baseball” story that may be difficult for a casual fan, if you follow cycling or are intrigued by this race, it is a good one to pick up.

And if you want to know why you shouldn’t have your favorite Mexican food delivered from California to France the night before an important ride, definitely check this one out (or at least review the Amazon Kindle sample which will give you that answer)

Book Review: Two Good Reads on France and WWII

I just finished two great reads, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which were set in France during World War II (WWII) . All the light we cannot seeAll the Light We Cannot See, is about two children’s lives during World War II- one growing up in France and the other in Germany. The narrative moves back and forth between the two main characters- Werner and Marie-Laure and parallels their coming of age. Werner, a young orphan boy in Nazi Germany, lives in a children’s home . He is exceptionally bright and curious with a knack for fixing radios. His talents in math and science win him a spot in a nightmarish Hitler Youth Academy. This is his only chance of escape from a grim life working in the same deadly coal mines.  Marie-Laure lives with her locksmith father who works at a museum, and she is blind. When the Germans attack Paris, she and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with a great-uncle who lives in a tall, storied house next to a sea wall.  Eventually, these parallel stories intersect briefly.  While the story is beautiful and heartbreaking, I was looking for something more when these two young lives cross, but nonetheless, an engaging, well-written book with many thought provoking lines. Here are a few of my personal favorites from All the Light We Cannot See:

“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

The Nightingale, is another great read about WWII (and a personal The Nightingalefavorite).  The narrative is about two sisters- Viann and Isabelle- who could not be more different from one another.  During WWII, both found themselves in unthinkable circumstances and did heroic things to survive the horrors of war as well as to help many others survive.  This is a heartbreaking book (suggest reading this in the privacy of your own home or hotel room because there will likely be tears) but provides a small glimpse into what courageous women did while France was occupied by Germany during the WWII. I highly recommend it.

Nicaragua Sandinistas, Contras and a Gringo

Here are a couple more reads to consider, if your plans include a trip to Nicaragua.  Much like other countries in Central and South American, Nicaragua has been a hot spot for war, corruption and human rights abuses during the past decades – especially in the 70’s and 80’s during the height of the global Cold War. Unfortunately for the Nicaraguans, the war was not so cold for them during the 80’s.  During that decade, the infamous US backed Contra vs. Sandinistas war unfolded in the country and accounted for thousands of lost lives and a gutting of the economy that has not fully recovered even today.

Blood Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua is the story of the ousting of the Somoza regime, Blood Brothersthe Nicaraguan Revolution and the rise of power of the Sandinistas and their war with the Contra army that split as well as devastated the Nicaraguans for years.  It is written by an ex-New York Times and Boston Globe foreign correspondent, is a fascinating story and a real page-turner from beginning to end. I thought it presented a balanced view of both sides and did not take an overly political view (although I am sure there are many out there that will disagree). Unfortunately, it is quite disheartening to learn more of the shenanigans that the CIA and US government created in the region (and around the world for that matter) in an effort to stem the growth of Communism during the Cold War. Fans of Reagan may have a different opinion after reading this book and understanding Castro’s role in ending the war may add complexity to opinions of this leader as well. It is not on Kindle and may be hard to find but worth the search.

Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua is another non-friction,Gringo Nicaraguan story of intrigue but with the trashy, sensationalized, real-crime approach of a Dateline episode. It is not high-brow stuff but could suck you in.  And it is an especially compelling read if you find yourself in Nicaragua reading it as it will have you wondering what would you do if you found yourself locked up for a year in a prison in Nicaragua!

Happy reading!


The Path Between The Seas; A Good Read on the Creation of the Panama Canal

A friend recommended the book, The Path Between The Seas, by David McCullough, and I am thankful he did.  The book is as much about the challenges associated with building the Panama canal, first by the French and later by the US, as is it a biography of the leaders needed to complete the monumental project.  The initial tale describes the challenges that the French, the original diggers of the canal, encountered and ultimately led to their downfall.  Similar to many complex problems, many contributing factors combine to limit progress and find solutions.  This was the case in the French’s attempt but ultimately a key factor leading to France’s demise and abandonment of the canal project was De Lesseps’, the lead developer of the Panama Canal (and the successful developer of the Suez), inept leadership skills due to an inability to listen to those on his team.  Conversely, the US building of the canal would likely not have happened had it not been for Teddy Roosevelt’s strong leadership and his manipulative steps taken to enable the Republic of Panama to formally separate from Colombia.  Even for the US team, the project was extremely challenging and arduous spanning 12 years.  Two of the three Chief Engineers, Stevens and Goethal, had to employ strategies to build morale and motivate the work force, while they battled harsh conditions,  to ultimately get the work done.

There are times the book gets mired in the technical details of Pathbetweenthe Seasthe building of the canal, but it includes many interesting tidbits:

  • The US conducted extensive surveys of Nicaragua evaluating it as a potential site for the canal and almost went to war with Britain over the rights to Nicaragua land for the potential site.
  • The canal opened six months early.  A confirmation of the leadership and dedication of the those working on the canal.
  • The US canal project was a clean project unlike when the French were attempting to build the canal. There is no evidence that corruption or even excessive profits were made by companies working on the canal. (One of these companies happened to be an unknown (at the time) and small engineering firm from upstate New York, General Electric)
  • Stevens, one of the Chief Engineers that was instrumental in the building of the canal, has a pass named after him in the Pacific Northwest, Stevens Pass. Before working on the canal, he worked for the railroad and found this key pass for train travel in Washington state.
  • Between 1904 and 1913, approximately 5,600 workers died due to disease or accidents.Many of these earlier deaths had been caused by yellow fever and malaria. Dr. Gorgas, who would later go on to be US Surgeon General, was relentless in his pursuit of eradicating yellow fever and malaria and is no small reason why the project was ultimately a success.

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most amazing engineering feats and a true testament to American ingenuity.  Visiting the canal was a special experience and reading this book in parallel with the visit made it that much more interesting.



Colombian Gold: Two Reads on Colombia

We really enjoyed our time in Colombia. The big cities are quite cosmopolitan especially FallingMedellin, and the coast as well as the Sierra Nevadas are just beautiful. In our opinion, Colombia gets a bad rap which decades ago, was probably valid, but things have changed.  The negative perception is due to its troubled past and problems with drug manufacturing and distribution as well its violent political history.

To understand more, I dove into a couple books on the former subject. The first was written by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a young and upcoming writer from Colombia. The Sound of Things Falling is set in Bogota during the bloody drug war years (1980’s-1990’s) and follows the story of a young law professor. It is a well-written, historical novel that provides great context on how the violence changed people’s lives in Colombia. It is an award winning , fast read that you will devour quickly.  Good airplane fodder.

518UESGvRlL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The second is not quite as deep or well written.  Killing Pablo was written by Mark Bowden who also wrote Black Hawk Down. It reads like a long magazine article which was good and bad. The writer’s research is impressive, and there are so many details and data on the notorious drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar- his life, the violence and killings to which he subjected Colombia for years. His upbringing, rise to power, ruthlessness, and strange habits are fascinating.  The first half of the book is intriguing, but the latter half slows down.  You can get trapped in the minute details, the endless introductions of new politicians and the grind of the search for Pablo. Also, Pablo’s demise is a bit of an anticlimax . However, if you are interested in the drug wars of Colombia or pet hippopotamuses (Pablo had three), you will find parts of the book interesting.


The Only Book to Read in Cartagena, Colombia

Go Circa Mundi

41Bn22qtn6L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be Latin America’s most well known writer. Hailing from Colombia he went to school and spent some time working in Cartagena. Many find his stories, such asOne Hundred Years  of Solitude (perhaps his most renowned novel) difficult to read. But Love in the Time of Cholereais not.  On a basic level, it is a classic love story set in colonial Cartagena about two lovers separated for most of their lives. On a deeper level, the story explores  love of many types and forms – marital and adulterous love, physical and platonic love, learned love, lusty love, etc. There is an interesting cast of characters with a story that keeps you wondering if the guy will get the gal until the very end.  Its all set in Cartagena during a boom time and in times of war and widespread disease (mostly notably cholera). It is a unique story and…

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The Only Book to Read in Cartagena, Colombia


Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be Latin America’s most well known writer. Hailing from Colombia he went to school and spent some time working in Cartagena. Many find his stories, such as One Hundred Years  of Solitude (perhaps his most renowned novel) difficult to read. But Love in the Time of Cholerea is not.  On a basic level, it is a classic love story set in colonial Cartagena about two lovers separated for most of their lives. On a deeper level, the story explores  love of many types and forms – marital and adulterous love, physical and platonic love, learned love, lusty love, etc. There is an interesting cast of characters with a story that keeps you wondering if the guy will get the gal until the very end.  Its all set in Cartagena during a boom time and in times of war and widespread disease (mostly notably cholera). It is a unique story and a good example of why Marquez is considered one of the best writers of our day.  Interesting note: he wrote it in 1985 and it was based on the tragic true story of an elderly American couple that were murdered in Mexico.

Its a classic and good read.