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Original Essays | September 30, 2014

Brian Doyle: IMG The Rude Burl of Our Masks



One day when I was 12 years old and setting off on my newspaper route after school my mom said will you stop at the doctor's and pick up something... Continue »
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    Children and Other Wild Animals

    Brian Doyle 9780870717543

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Hazelet's Journal by John Clark
Hazelet's Journal

HistoryWriter, November 6, 2013

George Cheever Hazelet was a former school principle and business owner living with his wife and two sons in Nebraska in 1897. His business collapsed that year due to the financial panic and economic downturn that swept the country in the mid-1890s. Hazelet felt his opportunity to get his family back to their previous economic status was to try his hand at prospecting as part of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush. He left his family behind and struck out with his partner, Andrew Jackson Meals, for Alaska. An educated man, Hazelet kept a detailed journal of his experiences.

Hazelet and Meals outfitted in Seattle. Most of the thousands of prospectors who were headed for the Klondike landed in Skagway or Dyea (in southeast Alaska) to take either the White Pass or Chilikoot trails to the Yukon River, then raft down to Dawson (in the Yukon Territory, Canada). The Hazelet party was one of the fewer numbers who landed in Valdez, Alaska to climb the Valdez Glacier and cross over the mountains to the headwaters of the Copper River. In Hazelet's Journal, you'll read about the struggle to overcome the terrain, the climate, and the loneliness of prospecting the Alaska wilderness. Mortal danger exists on a daily basis from river crossings, freezing temperatures, and claim jumpers. Hazelet is straightforward in his entries, his journals are engaging yet hyperbole is refreshingly absent. His descriptions ring true. This is a primary source document at its entertaining best.

George Hazelet did not "strike it rich" in Alaska in that he was not able to set up a commercial mining operation. He and his partner did, however, homestead 720 acres in what is today the city of Valdez, Alaska. Hazelet and Meals returned to Alaska with their families and left behind a legacy that is part of the collective history of the 49th state. Editor J.H. Clark is George Hazelet's great grandson. He is also president of the Port Valdez Company, which traces its history back to those original 720 acres of land and the various other business ventures started by George Hazelet. Clark has done a wonderful job of editing and publishing "Hazelet's Journal," keeping the original voice of the author. I must also comment that the book is beautifully formatted, with dozens of historic photos, and maps that can only be described as works of art. My only criticism of the work is that I would have liked to see a more in-depth introductory chapter on the various gold strikes in Alaska and the Yukon. For those that are not familiar with this segment of American History, I would recommend also reading "Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush" by Pierre Berton. But even still, this does not detract from "Hazelet's Journal," as few are familiar with the exploration of the Copper River Country.
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Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A A Warren
Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam

HistoryWriter, October 21, 2013

Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap recently passed away on October 4, 2013 at the age of 102. From the time he was born in 1911 until the communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975, his country was either occupied by a foreign power, or at war. Next to Ho Chi Minh, Giap is probably the most revered Vietnamese "founding father." Certainly the most well known in the United States. He is the mastermind behind the French defeat at Dien Bin Phu, the Tet Offensive, the Easter Offensive, and the 1975 Spring Offensive (which finally defeated South Vietnam and united the country under the communist government).

The publication of Warren's book is timely, but that's not the reason to read a biography of this man. Vo Nguyen Giap's life is a history of Vietnam in the Twentieth Century and the United States was one of the key players. His leadership and military decisions were instrumental in ending the American involvement in Southeast Asia. James Warren conveys this without pounding the reader over the head with it. The book is not lengthy (at just over 200 pages) but it thorough enough so that the reader gets a clear picture of not only the life of a self-taught military genius (too much?) but also a summary history of the French and American involvement in Vietnam.

Giap was in fact a self-taught military strategist. While studying in Hue before WWII, he was a voracious reader of military history and politics (p. 7). He also spent time as a history teacher (p. 10). However, his greatest insight (with a little help from his political mentor Ho Chi Minh) and implementation of the concept, was that "the army and the people are one."(p. 25) This set the stage for building a guerrilla army whose key to victory was outlasting their opponent. Although it took thirty years, Giap served as commander-in-chief of an army that defeated both France and the United States.

Warren's writing style is straightforward and readable. His conclusions are also clear and in my view inarguable. When I was an army officer, I read quite a few biographies of military figures. It was part of how you learned your trade. I would have added this book to my reading list. If you would read a book about Rommel or Robert E. Lee, then you might want to read a book about Vo Nguyen Giap. James Warren's book in a great choice.
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The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge by Werner Otto Mueller Hill
The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge

HistoryWriter, October 14, 2013

Werner Otto Muller-Hill was an upper-middle class German from Frieburg. He served as a military judge in the First World War before he went home to pursue a legal career. He was recalled to active duty in the German Wehrmacht, again to serve as a military judge in 1940. He was very pro-German, and very anti-Nazi. He started keeping a journal in March 1944 as a record for his young son, in the event he did not survive the war. Defeatism and criticizing the Fuhrer were crimes in Hitler's Germany, so if the things Muller-Hill wrote in his diary were ever found out, it could mean his death. But he survived the war, closing his journal two weeks after the German surrender to the Allies. He was sixty years old at the end of the war. Muller-Hill died in 1977.
German military justice was draconian during WWII. For example, the introduction provides the statistic that during WWI, German military courts sentenced 48 soldiers to death. However, under Nazi rule from 1933 to 1945 at least 20,000 and maybe as many as 33,000 or more soldiers, civilians, and POWs subject to military justice were put to death. (p. xvi) As Benjamin Carter Hett says, "Nazi military law...specified both harsh penalties and a speedy procedure, with few rights for defendants." (p. xix) Werner Otto Muller-Hill was one of the "good" judges though, who obviously thought a soldier would perform better back in his unit rather than hanging on the end of a rope.
What makes Muller-Hill's diary so interesting, and so valuable as a historical tool, is the amount of information he had, or moreover, what he knew. On April 5, 1944 Muller-Hill wrote that "We are rushing head-long into the worst kind of defeat...In a year we'll know more!!!" He almost predicted the outcome of the war and the date of Germany's defeat. Filtered through propaganda, briefings through his chain of command, newspaper and radio, this rear echelon officer knew quite a bit about things that previously we thought the average German did not. Along with his insight, he was often sarcastic and sometimes humorous. He talks of missiles being fired at London as "retribution" for the landings in Normandy (pp. 49-52) and also predicts the futility of the Battle of the Bulge (p. 131). He praises the attempt on Hitler's life (p. 59) and is upset about the use of 14-year old boys being put into defensive positions toward the end of the war (p. 92).
Most startling is Muller-Hill's rant about a speech given by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, where he writes "What nerve this man has! How dare he talk about gruesome maltreatment of women and children, when we've summarily murdered hundreds of thousands of Jewish women and children in Poland and Russia!" (p. 155). For me this helps to dispel the myth that the general populace of Germany, particularly the Wehrmacht, had no knowledge of the Holocaust before the end of the war.
"The True German" is a quick read, and in the real voice of an astute observer of what was going on around him. Reading this book provides the opportunity to hear what a very knowledgeable German officer was thinking at the time the events unfolded around him. His words are not filtered by a historian or other writer. The book is, in fact, a primary source document, both enlightening and entertaining. A nice addition to your WWII library.
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Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn Prince
Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

HistoryWriter, April 9, 2013

If you ask any given person what the worst maritime disaster was in history, (of those who could bring one to mind) you would probably hear about the Titanic, or even the Lusitania. However, I'd say it's a safe bet that the odds are astronomical that you'll find someone who knows about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

In the last year of WWII, in a last minute attempt to evacuate one million military and two million refugees from East Prussia, the Nazis experienced their own version of Dunkirk. On the night of January 30, 1945 the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury cruise ship pressed into military service, departed Gotenhafen for Kiel. It was estimated, since no records survived if any were available, that the ship carried over 9,000 souls, when it was designed to carry only 2,000. The majority were civilian refugees, women and children, and a number of wounded military personnel. A short time later, the Wilhelm Gustloff was struck by three torpedoes fired by a Soviet submarine S-13. The ocean liner sunk within an hour. Since there were lifeboats for only a fraction of those on board, many drowned in the freezing Baltic. There were approximately 1200 survivors. Some estimate the death toll as high as 9,000. To put the tragedy in perspective, approximately 1200 lives were lost on the Lusitania, and just over 1500 on the Titanic.

The sinking was not deliberately kept secret over the years, but it wasn't exactly publicized either. In post WWII America, not many people cared about what had happened to our former enemies. The ensuing Cold War with the Soviets further obscured the tragedy in the world's collective memory. Author Cathryn Prince heard about it one day and was driven to find out more. She found a survivor who had since immigrated to Canada. Prince went there to interview him. That's all it took to compel Prince to find more survivors to interview, and finally tell their story.

Prince articulates an observation that Americans have a tendency to not acknowledge the suffering of the German people during the war, not wanting to view them as having the right to be "victims" of the Nazis like other nationalities in Europe (p. 181). But if we are able to put those prejudices aside, there is a lot to learn in the details of the closing days of WWII in the European Theater. Moreover, as a reader and writer of military history, I think it's a good thing that we periodically put strategy and tactics aside and examine the experiences of the civilian during war.

The book is well written and reads at a good pace. There is no fluff, coming in at 236 pages including back matter, but it is a thorough history. The reader will learn about what happened on the Eastern Front in the closing days of WWII, and be caught up in several of the survivor stories. Photographs of the survivors as children help us see them as real people who went through extraordinary events. I highly recommend Death in the Baltic. It is an interesting, well told story that brings a little known event from WWII to light.
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We Were Soldiers Once...and Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Harold G Moore
We Were Soldiers Once...and Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam

HistoryWriter, February 25, 2013

This is an amazing book, fascinating and disturbing at the same time. There is probably nothing I can add to the hundreds of reviews of this book. However, I'd just like to say what lessons I took from it. First of all, at the risk of hyperbole, I must say that I wish every American would read this book. In it you will learn about the bravery of the American service person, and the real cost of war. It is a story that transcends the conflict in Vietnam and is very applicable to our modern military adventures, where the burden of war is carried by only a small percentage of our citizens.

The first half of the book describes the formation what would become the 1/7 Cavalry, part of the first air mobile division (1st Cavalry Division) and its deployment to Vietnam. The 1/7th is commanded by the co-author, Hal Moore. Moore's battalion is sent into LZ X-ray and survives a battle against what would have been overwhelming odds if it were not for massive American artillery and close air support despite the expert leadership of the officers and NCOs in the battalion from Moore down and the undisputed bravery of each individual soldier. This is significant as the first major engagement between American air mobile forces and the North Vietnamese Army.

The second half of the book, however, did not get portrayed artistically in the Mel Gibson movie. It tells the story of Moore's sister battalion, the 2/7th Cavalry, that was marching toward LZ Albany to be extracted after reinforcing the 1/7th at X-ray. While approaching the LZ, unprepared for meeting the enemy again, the battalion was attacked by three battalions of NVA soldiers. The chain of command was not able to bring artillery and air support their rescue in this engagement for several hours. The results were devastating. Both fights constitute the Battle of the Ia Drang, not just the part stylized in the movie.

The most moving part of the book is revealed in the closing chapters. The story of two widows and two daughters bring to light how the sacrifices of soldiers not only take the lives of amazingly talented soldiers, but also dramatically affects the lives of their loved ones at home, who continue to pay the price. Reading about the aftermath and the effect on the veterans and their family members is a very emotional experience. However, even more amazing and anger inducing is the way the battle was treated by the leadership of the country. The upper management of the Army and the government refuses any lessons to be learned from this battle, and the country continued on a path that was already decided upon before the 1st Cavalry Division even arrived in Vietnam.

I wish I could give this book more than five stars. If you enjoyed the movie, then please read this book and get the whole story.
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