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Air of Battle, by William M. Fry

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AIR OF BATTLE is the author's account of his experiences as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during World War I. (It was originally published in 1974, when Fry was nearly 80 years old. He would die in August 1992, age 95.)

Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914, William Fry was not quite 18 and working in a bank (for meager wages) in London. Eagerly he volunteered for service in the Army and after a spell of training, his unit (the London Rifle Brigade) was shipped to France, arriving there in November 1914. Within a short time, Fry's unit was involved in what later became known as the First Battle of Ypres, which stemmed the German drive to the English Channel and led to the trench warfare that would largely characterize ground combat on the Western Front for the remainder of the war. Fry would be one of the soldiers to experience first-hand the Christmas Truce of 1914 in which a number of British and German soldiers facing each other across the lines, would meet across no-man's-land on Christmas Day, sing carols, and suspend hostilities for 2 days. (The British high command frowned on this type of fraternization, which would not happen again in the war.)

By the spring of 1915, in response to a query made by a Member of Parliament about the number of underage soldiers (under 18 years of age) in France, Fry was one of 2 members of his unit who were sent back to the UK. Thereupon he applied on the sly for an officer's commission with the Somerset Light Infantry, was accepted, and spent the remainder of the year in training. That is, until December 1915, when Fry decided that it might be a good idea to join the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot or observer. He admits not to being enthusiastic about having to again face the mud and gore of the trenches. He had expressly requested to be trained as an observer. But somehow that request was ignored and Fry was put into a pilot training program. At that stage of the war, the RFC did not have a standardized flight training program. Training was a rather haphazard program in which flight instructors (most of them war-weary pilots who had seen extensive action in France) would take up a pilot trainee for a few flights in a two-seater aeroplane, maybe imparting to said trainee some sage advice as to how to fly the aeroplane. There were also, as Fry related, training courses in navigation, Morse Code, and a cursory introduction to the theory of flight and aircraft engines. From reading this section of the book, I gained a deep appreciation of the sheer guts any pilot trainee had to have in simply struggling to learn to fly. Some instructors were simply content to teach their charges enough flying simply to get the plane off the ground and land it safely. The prevailing expectation at that stage of the war was that the pilot trainee who survived his flight training would perfect his skills with a front-line unit in France. I was deeply impressed with the primitive nature of the training program for pilots, which typified the prevailing attitude among the RFC leadership to "teach them to fly and get them over to France ASAP."

Fry was assigned to a squadron in France in early summer 1916, flying the B.E.2c aeroplane nicknamed the "Quirk." It was a prewar aircraft that was easy to fly, but hardly suited for wartime operations. It had an unusual seating arrangement with the observer seated in the front seat (instead of the pilot) with the pilot sitting in the rear seat. Fry flew several bombing and reconnaissance missions above the lines and for some distance inside enemy territory. These were rather risky undertakings because it wasn't unusual for the B.E.2c to develop engine trouble at a very inopportune moment, which could lead to the crew being made to make a forced landing in either friendly or enemy territory. Plus, there was also the hazard of anti-aircraft fire and German fighters. In describing this stage of his wartime service, Fry comes across as a very self-effacing, modest person. In toto, he would serve at the Front with 3 squadrons (one of them a scout or fighter squadron) from June 1916 to February 1917. He considered himself one of the "lucky ones" because on average an RFC pilot at that time survived barely a week on active service in France. The air war was becoming more and more dangerous as tactics were developed and modified in response to the changing tempo of combat, and both sides were coming out with faster, more advanced, and better armed aircraft.

Fry's wartime experience is rather interesting because he went on to fly a variety of fighter planes in combat, which was not usual for an RFC (later Royal Air Force) fighter pilot in the war. He would also serve as a flight instructor in the UK and return to France in the latter part of 1917 with one of the few RFC fighter squadrons flying the SPAD, a robust and highly touted French-designed fighter plane that saw considerable action with French fighter units. He also shares with the reader much of what life at the Front was like, meeting some of the famous British, Canadian, and French fighter aces of the war.

By early 1918, Fry would be reassigned to another RFC unit, flying yet another fighter plane, the Sopwith Dolphin which was designed to be a solidly built aeroplane, suited for high attitude combat. That is, at heights above 15,000 ft. (Most aviators in World War I flew at high attitudes --- sometimes as high as 21,000 ft --- without oxygen, bundled up in heavy, bulky clothing. Some of them would smear their faces with whale oil in an effort to ward off the effects of extreme cold at those heights. Furthermore, Fry flew without a parachute, because parachutes were not issued to Allied pilots during the war. The higher command maintained that issuing pilots parachutes would disincentivize them from fighting to the utmost at the Front. Hence, no parachutes were allowed.)

Fry's war would end following a crash in late May 1918 after flying a mission over the lines. By then, he had been credited with shooting down 11 German planes in aerial combat.

For anyone wanting to get a real, tangible sense of what life at the Front (as well as among training and home based squadrons in the UK) was like for a combat aviator, AIR OF BATTLE is fantastic. Much of what Fry shares with the reader is informed by the logbook he kept during the war. There are also lots of photographs from Fry's wartime service that give added weight to what is a wonderful book. 
Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution, by Elena Poniatowska

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informative inspiring medium-paced


 Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution celebrates and extols -- through Elena Poniatowska's commentary and an extensive collection of photographs from the revolutionary era in Mexico (1910-1920) --- the achievements and contributions made by "las soldaderas" during the Mexican Revolution. 

The soldaderas were a unique group of women who not only clothed, fed, and cared for the soldiers of the various factions during the revolution. Indeed, many of these women also served as soldiers in many of the battles (sometimes while disguised as men) and some of them even led and commanded units in combat. The soldaderas have over the past century come to assume mythic status in Mexican culture, celebrated in song, story, and verse. 
Above the Pacific: Three Medal of Honor Fighter Aces of World War II Speak, by Colin Heaton

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In Above the Pacific, Colin Heaton, a military historian who has interviewed some of the most distinguished aviators (Allied and Axis) of World War II, conducted a series of interviews with 3 Medal of Honor winners who were distinguished fighter aces and leaders during the Pacific War. Two of them --- Gregory "Pappy" Boyington and Joe Foss -- were Marine pilots who had seen considerable combat from China (where Boyington had a combat stint with the American Volunteer Group, aka The Flying Tigers) to the South Pacific.

The third pilot Heaton interviewed was Captain David McCampbell of the U.S. Navy, a prewar graduate of the Naval Academy, who holds the record as the Navy's top ace, having shot down 34 Japanese planes during his combat tour (April - December 1944) with Air Group 15, operating from the carrier Essex. McCampbell distinguished himself in a single action in October 1944, when he and his wingman took on 60 enemy planes intent on attacking the U.S. fleet. During this action, McCampbell shot down 9 planes and his wingman downed 6 of the enemy.

Heaton does a fine job of outlining the various campaigns in which the 3 pilots were involved, as well as identifying the names of some of the officers under whom Boyington, Foss, and McCampbell served during their military careers.

What's more: Above the Pacific is highly readable, with each man given the freedom to speak plainly and honestly about himself and his World War II service and postwar life. 
The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping That Brought Down an Empire, by Tom Sancton

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emotional informative mysterious reflective sad medium-paced


THE LAST BARON: The Paris Kidnapping That Brought Down an Empire is a richly, layered story steeped in intrigue and tragedy. Its essence is centered around the kidnapping, in January 1978, of Baron Édouard-Jean “Wado” Empain, one of France's principal industrial leaders who was also an inveterate gambler, playboy, and a man who seemingly had it all. He was a third generation baron and head of the Empain industrial empire, which had been founded by his grandfather in the 1880s and, at its zenith, "spread from France and Belgium to span more than a dozen countries." The design and construction of the Paris Metro in the late 1890s was one its greatest achievements.

I came across this book by chance. Its author, Tom Sancton, I had previously become acquainted with from reading a few years ago his engaging book, THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR which dealt with Liliane Bettencourt (1922-2017), who was the richest woman in the world and one of the principal shareholders in L'Oréal, one of the world's largest cosmetic and beauty companies, which was founded by her father in the early 1900s.

The Last Baron piqued my curiosity because it's a book about a political kidnapping at a time when such kidnappings in Europe seemed common. This was in the late 1970s. I was then on the cusp of adolescence. I remember the 1977 kidnapping and murder of Hans-Martin Schleyer, a German industrialist, by the radical leftist terrorist Baader Meinhof group. And then, it was followed up by the kidnapping and murder in Italy of former Premier Aldo Moro by the radical leftist Red Brigade terrorist group. Those 2 tragic events --- which I learned about on the TV news --- became fixed in my memory. But the kidnapping of Baron Empain completely escaped my notice.

Sancton does a masterful job in describing the planning and carrying out of the kidnapping in a crowded Paris street, the life stories and motives of the kidnappers themselves, as well as the effects the kidnapping had on Baron Empain and his family and the Empain industrial empire.

The Last Baron is a book that reads like an epic, Shakespearian novel, except that what it describes in considerable detail was all too true. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a gripping tale. 
The Great Air Race: Death, Glory, and the Dawn of American Aviation, by John Lancaster, John Lancaster

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The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation is the story about a most remarkable event in U.S. aviation history that has largely been forgotten. The event was a transcontinental air race in October 1919 in which some of the U.S. Army Air Service's most skilled pilots, flying an array of airplanes, were split into 2 groups. One group of airmen would be tasked to fly from east to west (from Roosevelt Field in Mineola, NY to San Francisco), and then fly back East, subject to certain time constraints. The other group of pilots would proceed from San Francisco to Roosevelt Field, and back west again, following a line of control stops set up by the Air Service where planes from both groups would be refueled and repaired (if necessary) while pilots could rest and be apprised of the latest weather conditions.

The brainchild for this transcontinental air race came from Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, the Air Service's No. 2 , in charge of its Training and Operations Group. Since returning from France ---where he had successfully commanded the largest aerial armada yet deployed in combat during the Battles of Saint Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne --- Mitchell was determined that the Air Service should become an independent air force. To that end, he pressured his supporters in Congress to introduce and pass legislation establishing an independent American air force based upon Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF). The legislation would be taken up by Congress in the fall.

So, as a way of emphasizing his belief that an air force was vital to the nation's security and helping to foster the development of a domestic aviation industry and commercial aviation, Mitchell announced that the Air Service would stage a transcontinental air race in the fall of 1919. This race would serve to highlight how much aeronautics had developed during the recently concluded World War and stimulate the public's interest in aviation.

The reader is brought into that long ago world through the stories of several of the airmen (one of whom was also an ordained minister) who took part in the race, shedding light on the thrills, perils, and hazards they faced. As a longtime aviation enthusiast, I was fascinated to learn about the state of aviation technology of that time. A pilot and his mechanic had to be acutely attuned to the ways and whims of the airplane, from its engine, its control surfaces, and bracing wires (which helped to support and keep together the 2 wings of the airplane; in 1919, the biplane was the standard aircraft in use; it wouldn't be until the 1930s that monoplanes would supplant biplanes in both military and commercial aviation). What's more: airplanes in 1919 did not have brakes! YIKES! In landing a plane, a pilot had to be highly skilled in reducing speed so that when he touched down at an airfield, he could safely and smartly park the plane and cut its engine.

The Great Air Race also has lots of photos of the people and airplanes that were in the competition as well as a national map showing the control stops and distances (spelled out in miles) that were involved. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story. 
America's Last President: What the World Lost When It Lost John F. Kennedy, by Monika Wiesak

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In America's Last President: What the World Lost When It Lost John F. Kennedy, Monika Wiesak offers reader a clear, concise analysis of the record and legacy of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK). From subject areas as diverse as the Domestic Economy, Wall Street, Civil Rights, Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA, Latin America, Laos/Vietnam, Africa, Disarmament, and Israel, she illustrates through both President Kennedy's words and the challenges posed in each of the subject areas covered in the book, the actions that were undertaken and/or proposed by his administration by way of resolution.

What became clear to me as I read this book how much JFK took his duties and responsibilities seriously as President. Indeed, Wiesak shows that JFK was a compassionate and independent thinker with "great intent to serve his country, his people, and the globe around him. He envisioned a world of decentralized power --- from strong, diverse, and independent nations to thriving opportunities for America's small businesses --- a world not led by imperial forces but led by the people."

One of the greatest challenges faced by JFK as President came from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was more interested in plunging the U.S. into wars ostensibly for the purpose of stemming the Communist threat, even if it meant risking a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Members of the Joint Chiefs such as General Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Air Force, fervently believed that the Soviets had to be fought at all costs. Nuclear war for him was winnable whether it be touched off by crises in Berlin, Cuba, or Vietnam. JFK knew the true costs of war from what he had experienced as a naval officer in the South Pacific during World War II, and from having lost his older brother, Joe Jr., a naval pilot, in 1944. Furthermore, as a young Congressman, JFK had visited French Indochina in 1951 and had seen first-hand what the impact the Indochinese War had on the people there as well as on France itself. JFK was unafraid to push back against the U.S. military establishment if it favored an action that was likely to lead to senseless destruction with little or no gain for U.S. interests. In the cases of Berlin and the Cuban Missile Crisis, had JFK not been there to ensure that there weren't measured responses to events as they unfolded, the world would likely be a nuclear desert today, where the dead would be envied by the living.

Wiesak also highlights the invaluable role JFK's brother Robert played in the administration as Attorney General and special presidential advisor, in assisting JFK in dealing with many of the crises faced by the administration between 1961 and 1963.

As a way of summing up what she learned about JFK, Wiesak shows that the greatest value President Kennedy showed was in "curtailing the ability of the powerful to exploit the weak." This helps to explain why in the poorest regions of the world, news of President Kennedy's assassination, came as a heavy blow to the people therein. For they recognized the humanity of the man and, like millions of Americans, were inspired by his words, his wit, and his charismatic personality.

As someone who has long admired and respected John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I am so glad to have read this book which I came upon by chance several weeks ago. I hope that you, reader of this review, will now feel moved to read America's Last President

Last Talons of the Eagle, by Gary Hyland, Anton Gill

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LAST TALONS OF THE EAGLE takes a comprehensive look at the various secret technologies that were designed, tested or built for use of the Luftwaffe in its efforts to stave off the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, as well as for the use of the Wehrmacht itself.

Examples of these technologies included "designs for a hypersonic space plane, a manned V-1 flying bomb" [the Fieseler Fi 103 Reichenberg] that was to be employed by its pilot to fly into an Allied bomber formation, allowing scant time for said pilot to bail out of the Fi 103, and prototypes for "flying wing" aircraft. Indeed many of these designs and prototypes were fantastically futuristic, anticipating by several decades aerospace technologies that would later be perfected in the U.S. and Western Europe.

This is a book ideally suited for any readers who have an interest in technology. There are lots of photos of prototypes, designs from projects that never saw the light of days because of Germany's declining fortunes as the war proceeded, and aircraft (e.g. the Heinkel 162 jet fighter) that saw limited combat. 
Texas in the Morning: The Love Story of Madeleine Brown and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, by Madeleine D. Brown

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Madeleine Brown (1925-2002) in her memoir, Texas in the Morning speaks at length about her relationship with Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), whom she first met at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in 1948, when then Congressman Johnson was running for the U.S. Senate. LBJ was a charmer and an instant rapport developed between the 2 after they had been introduced. Madeleine was working for a major advertising agency at the time in Dallas. She was then in her early 20s and was married to a man whose sanity had been shattered by his wartime experiences as a Marine in World War II. He became an abusive husband, so much so that she had to get a separation from him. He was later institutionalized because he had been judged to be a danger to society. By that time, Madeleine (who came from a loving, supportive family) had a son by her husband. (They would divorce in 1955.)

Madeleine fell deeply in love with LBJ.  He was much besotted with her, too, and their relationship would last for close to 25 years.  Whenever possible, they would have discreet assignations in a private hotel suite when LBJ could get away from Washington to be in Texas. According to what he told Madeleine, his marriage to Lady Bird was more of a formal, working relationship. Lady Bird, unlike LBJ, had come from a wealthy family and LBJ knew by marrying her, he would need that wealth to help build his political career. Madeleine had a child by LBJ in 1950 to whom he provided financial support which extended beyond LBJ's death in January 1973.

The book offers snippets into the life of LBJ as he became a powerful force in Washington as Senate Majority Leader during the 1950s, as well as further solidifying his power and influence in TX, which was considerable (!) Madeleine recounts a number of conversations she had with LBJ from the time of the 1960 campaign to his time as Vice President. She knew a lot of the most powerful people in Texas society and politics, mostly from her work as an advertising executive.

There are also some comments about LBJ's relationship with the Kennedys that would be of considerable interest to anyone fascinated with U.S. history and personal relationships among historical personages of power and influence. In one of the most intriguing revelations in Texas in the Morning, Madeleine shares with the reader at some considerable length, what she observed at a private party she attended in Dallas on the night of November 21, 1963 where there were plenty of movers and shakers in local and national politics, as well as high finance. LBJ was among them, and what he said to Madeleine in confidence that night was startling. I won't shed further light on that, except to say if you --- the reader of this review --- are so keen to know the details, read this book.

For me, Texas in the Morning is a keeper.   It's a book I am very much inclined to read again in the foreseeable future. 
Widespread Panic, by James Ellroy

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dark emotional funny mysterious tense medium-paced
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes


 Widespread Panic tells a story taken from a chapter in the life of Freddy Otash, a former Marine and L.A. vice cop later dismissed from the force in the early 1950s under somewhat murky circumstances who goes on to find a niche for himself as a private investigator, a strong arm for a scurrilous celebrity magazine that dishes all the dirt on the private lives of movie stars, and a planter of bugs in the homes of persons of interest to the LAPD (and its infamous chief, William H. Parker), state and federal law enforcement agencies.

In the beginning of the novel, Otash is introduced to the reader as someone who lived a shady, dissolute life, having died in the summer of 1992 in his early 70s. He has been consigned to purgatory and it is from that perch that he shares with the reader his experiences of living in the L.A. of the 1950s with views of the shady side of Hollywood and life in the city's underbelly.

While Widespread Panic was an entertaining novel, it is not one that I am likely to re-read. Its feel was like bubble gum, which at first fresh and tasty, grows stale the longer you chew it. 
The Saint-Fiacre Affair, by Georges Simenon

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dark emotional mysterious reflective sad tense medium-paced
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes


In The Saint-Fiacre Affair, Inspector Maigret finds himself back in his hometown, having been in receipt of the following message: A crime will be committed ,,,during first mass .... There an old countess, whose family had long held sway over the town, has died in the pews of the local church under seemingly mysterious circumstances. Her death brings back into town her son, Maurice de Saint-Fiacre, who had lived a dissolute life in Paris with his mistress.

The story reveals a cast of characters, inclusive of Maurice de Saint-Fiacre himself, each of whom has something about him that casts a veil of suspicion about them. At times, the story meanders a bit. But as it goes along, the matter of the countess's death points to one of the town's characters as the contributor to her demise.

On the whole, The Saint-Fiacre Affair was a nice concise story. But among all the Inspector Maigret novels It has been my pleasure to read, this one is not a favorite.