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.

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


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.


Book Review: The Last Days of the Incas

There are many books written on the Incas, and it can be a challenge sifting through the Last Days of the Incasplethora of books out there.  Perusing  Kindle samples (which I love) helps but can sometimes take time. However, this book, The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, pulled me in immediately. Part of my rationale for choosing this book over the many other books was that it was not written by explorers claiming to have found Inca ruins, and MacQuarrie is a four-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and an anthropologist.  If you have any interest in what happened to the Incas, the brutal takeover by the Spanish as well as three American explorers of Peru, this is a well researched and written book with a focus on the thirty-six year war between the Incas and Spanish.

MacQuarrie’s detailed account of the events during this war is woven into a fascinating story.  The book kept my attention throughout the roughly 540 pages as it reads more like a novel and has a number of interesting characters- the brutal and ruthless Pizarro brothers, the Inca emperors, Pachacuti, Manco, Atahualpa and his brother, Huascar.   And there is an added bonus towards the end of the book where MacQuarrie transitions from the thirty-six year war to the trials and tribulations of three American explorers (Hiram Bingham, Gene Savoy and Vincent Lee) who rediscovered various Inca ruins.  This section of the book was another fascinating read about the cutthroat explorer business.  This is a must read, in my opinion, for anyone planning to visit Cusco, Peru and the Inca trail and ruins.


Dirty Secrets, Dirty War

Here is another good book for those interested in understanding Argentina’s dark history, and specifically, the Dirty WarDirty War from 1979-1983.  Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Robert J. Cox is the story of Robert Cox, the editor of the English language newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, during this time.  It is a biography written by Cox’s son so it offers a single perspective and one that is biased for sure. However, it provides a lot of context around the politics of the time in Argentina as well as details of an extraordinary human-rights crisis that is well worth understanding.  The Buenos Aires Herald was the only newspaper in the country that defied government censors and wrote about the heart wrenching stories of the “disappeared”.  Incredibly, Robert Cox risked his life and safety of his family for years to be one of the few voices to make the atrocities known within Argentina and around the world.  Ultimately, his defiance forced his exile.

The book can be a bit repetitive in spots, and the information sometimes feels a bit disorganized, but the story is gripping and the heroics of Cox make it a compelling read. This is a war that needs to be understood and remembered.

Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron

When visiting the Recoleta Cemetery where the graves of Argentina’s powerful are located including Evita Peron’s, it was interesting to see all the flowers and handwritten notes for a woman who was a very controversial figure in Argentina.  Today, 68 years after her death, she still evokes a lot discussion and emotion from people.


Her husband, Juan Peron, is infamously credited with totalitarianism and bankrupting a rich country.  At the time that Peron became President of Argentina in 1946, Argentina was the richest country in South America and one of the richest countries in the world.  Britain owed Argentina $2B after WWII.  Interested to learn more about South American politics and this female icon of Argentina, I read Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro.  Evita published an autobiography before she died in 1952, but I was looking for a third party perspective.  Eva Peron.jpg

This biography is a fast and engaging read about Evita- the person, the actress, the wife of Argentina’s President, Juan Peron, women’s rights and political activist.  Maria Eva Duarte (Evita) was a poor and illegitimate child.  In 1935, she left home at sixteen traveling to Buenos Aires with aspirations to become an actress.  Before marrying Peron, she became one of the best paid, radio soap opera stars.  However, controversy surrounded Eva while she was an actress as well.   Since actors and actresses were paid poorly at that time in Argentina, prostitution was a common way to supplement one’s income.

Early in her career, Eva had no interest in politics.  However, at a festival to raise money for victims of an earthquake in Argentina, Evita and Peron met.  Then, she marries Peron after living with him for a period and becomes First Lady of Argentina at 26.

At the start of her role as First Lady, it appears she struggled, and it took her some time to mature into the position.  Once she matured into the role sometime after an historic trip to Europe, Evita developed some missions and fought for women’s suffrage and the poor.  In 1947, Argentine women were finally given the right to vote after a series of bills failed from 1911 to 1946.  (Women’s right to vote in the US was ratified in 1919.)  Then from about 1946 until she died in 1952, Evita worked tirelessly for the poor.  Initially, she distributed clothes and food to the poor, and eventually, leveraged her position to secure donations from workers and companies, to the point, where a sizable Foundation (estimated at over $3B pesos or over $200 million at the exchange rate at the time) was established.  In 1948, the Maria Eva Duarte de Peron Foundation was created and given legal rights by her husband, the President; however, the name was eventually changed to Foundation for Social Assistance.  The achievements of the Foundation are significant.  For example, 12 hospitals and 1,000 schools were built in the poorest areas of the country.  Evita took a very personal and hands-on approach to the Foundation and engaging with the people. There is one story about a visit she made to a poor neighborhood where she is approached by a crying women with eight children asking for a home.  After Evita verified the women was in need, a check was written for a home and basic necessities for this family. Unfortunately, the achievements are not without controversy, especially in terms of how the money for the Foundation was acquired.  There were allegations of extortion.  Many other interesting details, some controversial and some not, about Evita and her husband are covered in this book as well.

Nonetheless, the way in which the book is written makes for a quick and enjoyable read (if sometimes general and high level) about a fascinating woman who played a substantial and controversial role in Argentine history.  Unfortunately, she was likely not able to achieve her full potential. She died at the very young age of 33 after suffering from cancer.


The Covenant- South Africa

During the Footsteps to Freedom tour that we took in Cape Town, I asked our guide ( who was very knowledgeable about South African history) for book recommendations on ThecovenantSouth Africa.  The first book he rattled off was The Covenant by James Michener.  This coupled with the same recommendation from my husband, I was sure I could not go wrong reading this voluminous, historical fiction novel spanning prehistoric times to the 1970’s focused on South Africa . Given the recommendations from great people coupled with our fondness for South Africa, I will try to be objective here, but a warning my judgement might be a little skewed. 🙂

Michener’s writing style makes learning South African history a pleasure even though the book is quite long- about 1250 pages. He weaves a fascinating story of multiple generations of families from diverse, ethnic backgrounds  and includes beautiful descriptions of this gorgeous country- e.g. Karoo, the veld, etc.  Some real characters that were influential in South African history are also included- e.g. Jan Smuts, Cecil Rhodes, Paul Kruger, Gandi, etc. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the midsection and the subplot were a little too lengthy and less interesting due in part to the superstitious elements which did not resonate with me.  The book demonstrates the heinous consequences of people incorrectly interpreting religious books ( interesting given the parallels with present day).  And the stories and examples used to describe how ludicrous the apartheid system was is well-done and poignant. This is a must read for anyone planning to visit and/ or wants to understand the complex and interesting history of South Africa including some of the drivers behind the reprehensible apartheid system (although the book is long and a little slow in the midsection).