The Perfect Horse // by Elizabeth Letts

//published 2016//

Those of you who have been with me for a while have probably noticed that I read significantly more fiction than nonfiction.  But I do also have a nonfiction TBR and have been trying to read more from that as well.  In June I started The Perfect Horse because I had read another book by Letts a couple of years ago, The Eighty-Dollar Champion, and really enjoyed it.  In The Perfect Horse I was so pleased to see that Letts’s attention to detail and ability to tell an engrossing story had definitely carried over.

During the 1930s, while Hitler was amassing territory and power, he also was working on a project to create the ideal war horse.  In World War I, horses were hugely instrumental to the war effort, so the concept of making a perfect “race” of horses fit in well with Hitler’s overall scheme of a perfect “race” of humans.  As various countries fell under German control, many assets of those countries were centralized, including famous stables and horses.  Letts follows the journey of several different horses, including two famous Arabian stallions from Poland, and several Lipizzaner stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Austria.  She also introduces us to the people connected to these horses.  There are a lot of people and places in play, but Letts’s writing is compulsively readable, and I honestly had trouble putting this one down.

The first two sections of the book focus on introducing the horses, people, and places involved.  Letts gives the readers the background of why Hitler found horses to be such an important part of his military program, and also discusses what the US Calvary was doing at the time (they were still on horseback!), yet we also begin to see the writing on the wall – horses are not actually going to be critical military assets for much longer.  It was really interesting to see the way that the horses were shifted around and centralized, and how the focus of Hitler’s horse breeding program was on creating virtually identical stallions for war, a horse factory if you will, with horses being trained and used as young as possible, and mares producing foals as rapidly as they could.  This was especially in contrast with the incredibly slow-moving and precise breeding/training program of the Lipizzaner horses, who aren’t ridden until they are several years old.

In the third part of the book, the war is moving along and Germany is falling.  It’s at this point that an American officer finds out, through a captured German, that a small herd of incredibly valuable horses are just across enemy lines.  With the Russians closing in from the east, and willing to literally eat anything and everything in their path, a decision is made to cross lines and basically steal the horses.  An interesting part here was the discussion about whether or not it was worth it to risk human lives to rescue equine ones, and I appreciated the way that Letts explained this –

This mission mattered to him – he wanted to save the horses.  All over Europe, there were men whose express job was to protect cultural artifacts and recover stolen art.  At the highest level, the American military was aware that even in the darkest times, care must be taken to protect irreplaceable cultural treasures.  But the horses, equally beloved, equally treasured, infinitely precious because they were living things, did not have the same official protection afforded to museum pieces.

For me, the book fell off a bit in the final section, which looks at the aftermath of the rescue.  Because the focus is more on this group of specific horses than it is on the Lipizzaner breed as a whole, it’s honestly a little bit of a downer.  The American Calvary stopped using horses after World War II, which meant that the horses were sold rather than used.  The American Jockey Club refused to acknowledge the meticulously-kept records of the heritage of rescued horses, which meant that they were almost valueless in America.  Consequently, the end-destination of many of the horses is unknown, although the fates of the four stallions that Letts focused on the most were happy.

All in all, I definitely recommend this one.  It was completely engrossing and an intriguing look at yet another aspect of both the war and Hitler’s regime.  Letts kept me completely engaged in the fates of these beautiful horses and the men who cared about them.  I felt like this quote really summarizes the story well –

World War II is still the most destructive event ever to have occurred in human history, with estimates of the total death toll as high as sixty million, or 2.5 percent of the world’s total population.  The irreparable loss to civilization that resulted from people being slaughtered and entire cultures being obliterated is impossible to measure.

Against the backdrop of all this wreckage, the saving of the horses was a small thing; and yet as Hank Reed’s men instinctively knew, it was only through individual acts of compassion that the world was able to climb out of the trough it had dug for itself and attempt to find its way into a more peaceful future.

Later, when people asked why he had decided to save the horses, Colonel Reed’s answer was simple:  “We were so tired of death and destruction.  We wanted to do something beautiful.”

The Postmistress


by Sarah Blake

published 2010

So I picked this up for a quarter at the library booksale.  I wavered, because it does say a novel on the front, and I’m discovering more and more that a novels are just not for me.

The language in The Postmistress was beautiful.  However, the story was an incredible downer – nobody ended up happy, and we are left with a very hopeless perspective on life.

The story focuses on several different people.  One group lives in a small town, Franklin, on the “arm” of Massachusetts.  This group includes Iris, the postmistress.  Middle-aged and single, Iris lives a peaceful life, viewing herself as a small but critical part of the United States Government: her job as a postmistress is sacred to her.  Iris is falling in love with the town mechanic, Harry.  We also meet Emma, the bride of the town’s doctor.

Meanwhile, in England, a war is on.  Frankie, an American, is living in London and reporting, via radio, about the Blitz.  She loves her work, and Blake ties together her two locations frequently through Frankie’s stories, as the people in Franklin listen to what Frankie is reporting.  (Frankie and Franklin…  ha, just noticed that!)

Like I said, some of the language is beautiful.  The descriptions of London life during this tumultuous and terrifying time are wonderful –

A draft of night air hit her, and the sounds of bombs falling now, further along to the west.  A thick gust of smoke crossed as the wind shifted off the river carrying the stink of the explosions.  …  There was no veil, no protective curtain where it happened out of sight, “over there.”  This was the shock.  This had always been the shock, and it seemed to Frankie the most important thing for people to know.  Over here, there was nothing between you and the war.  …  That was it, wasn’t it?  The nothing between.  That scant air between the couple kissing this evening: their bodies leaning against each other before going underground was the same air between the gunners and the bombs, and it was the same air that carried her voice across the sea, on sound waves, to people listening in their chairs at home.

Or this bit –

One day someone you saw every day was there and the next he was not.  This was the only way Frankie had found to report the Blitz.  The small policeman on the corner, the grocer with the bad eye, the people you walked to work with, in the shops, on the bus: the people you didn’t know but who walked the same route as you, who wove the anonymous fabric of your life.  Buildings, gardens, the roofline, one could describe their absence.  But for the disappearance of a man, or a little boy, or the woman who used to wait for the bus at the same time as she did, Frankie had found few words:  Once they were here.  And I saw them.

As the stories unwind, the characters are woven together.  Through various circumstances, Frankie meets Franklin’s doctor in London.  Later, after she’s traveled through occupied France and part of Germany, Frankie returns to the States, and finds herself drawn to Franklin.  Because it is a novel, though, no one is allowed a happy ending.  People die (just to prove that people died), and Frankie never finds the answers for which she was searching.

Also, because it is a novel, we have to have at least a couple of random sex scenes – and, for me, details of someone losing their virginity is really just not all that interesting, you know?  And ditto for the shagging of a random stranger up against a wall outside the bar.  I mean, really?  So unnecessary.

And finally, as a novel, we have to have at least a bit of time devoted to a woman being on her period, because apparently it’s important to emphasize that women have menstrual cycles now.

(Keep in mind that this is literally out of nowhere.  The paragraph before, Frankie is just hanging out, thinking about life.)

A clot of blood released into her underpants.  Then another.  Christ.  She shimmied the three steps over to her bureau, holding her hand between her legs so nothing dripped onto the landlady’s carpet.  She reached and found a Kotex and a pair of clean underwear and fastened the one to the sanitary belt around her waist, pulled the other up, and tossed the soiled underwear on top of the blouse already soaking in the tiny sink by the door.

?!?!??!?!?!  The end.  No purpose whatsoever.  I do not understand this trend of talking about menstrual cycles.  Why….????  You know, it’s one of those things that I have to think about enough in real life, really not interested in reading about it in my fiction.  Sheesh.

But you know, I could have gotten past all that, even gotten past the fact that the first chapter is all about Iris going to the doctor in Boston so she can get a “certificate” stating that she is still a virgin so whenever Harry gets around to shagging her, she’ll be able to prove that he’s the first (!?!?!?!?), if there had been even the slightest glimmer of hope at the end of this story.  But there wasn’t.  Like most a novels, this one ended bleakly – “We can’t change what’s coming.  Something is always coming.”

I think that part of Blake’s point is that tragic things happen all over the world, but we only care about the things that touch us.  The implication, of course, is that this is wrong.  Frankie felt passionately that the States should have been involved in the war long before they were, hence her desire to tell the everyday stories in an attempt to tell the people home how everyday life in Europe was terrifying.  But as somewhat of an isolationist, I’m not sure that I agree with a lot of what Frankie has to say, or with a lot of Blake’s attempted parallels to the modern world.

If you enjoy a novels, you will probably like this book.  It is written well, and the story is engaging.  Personally, though, I really like something with at least a glimmer of hope.

ALSO something else really torqued me off about this book, but involves major spoilers, so I’ll put the minirant below the break.  ;-)

Continue reading

World War II: The Axis Assault, 1939-1942



Editor: Douglas Brinkley
Chapter Introductions:  David Rubel

Published:  2003

So this book is a “New York Times Living History” book, and I’m having trouble finding out if these are actually a thing, or if just happens to be this one and Volume II of World War II.  Regardless, this book was pretty nifty.

Basically, the book is divided into parts and the parts are divided into chapters.  Each part is some big stage of the war (or leading up to the war), and then the chapters are events that were part of  that stage.  In each chapter, there is a brief introduction of the event, then a copy of an article from The New York Times that covered that event, and then some other primary document – a transcript of a speech, a copy of a letter, a series of telegrams, etc.  While obviously you are still getting some biased information (someone is deciding which primary documents you read), it was still super interesting to read some of these documents for myself, especially speeches given by FDR, Hitler, and Churchill.  I’ve always been down on FDR, so I enjoyed reading this speeches and picking them apart on my own.  ;-)

The newspaper articles are interesting as well.  We read them with the 20/20 (sort of) vision of looking at the past, so it’s intriguing to read articles that were written when the person writing didn’t know what was going to happen next.  There are loads of pictures as well, and this was, overall, just an excellent way to get an overview of the war, and to be reminded that when history is happening, the future is uncertain.  I have Volume 2 on my shelf and am looking forward to reading it.

Between Shades of Gray



by Ruta Sepetys

Published 2011

This is a story about a Lithuanian girl named Lina who, in 1941, is arrested by the Russians and sent to a prison camp.  This book is journal from the years she spent there, suffering from exposure, starvation, and brutal treatment by the Russian soldiers.  While this book is a work of fiction, the author’s parents (or at least one…  the back cover is a bit vague…) were Lithuanian refugees, thus leading to the author’s desire to give this often-forgotten story a voice.

THE STORY IS VERY SAD.  Sometimes this sounds stupidly obvious, but it’s true.  There’s not a lot of happy moments in this book.  People die.  People wish they were dead because their lives are so horrible.  This is a story of injustice, of prejudice, of desperation, of despair.  There is not happy ending, just a vague epilogue that implies that Lina and her brother eventually are freed.

For me, all prison camp stories end up being compared to The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, one of my favorite books of all time.  And most fall short because they lack the same sense of hope that ten Boom’s story gives.  I think that it is because ten Boom tells her story from a place of faith: even though terrible things happen to her and her family (and when she is rather old, too – at an age where you sit back and assume that your life will continue to be just as adventureless and peaceful as it has been for the last six decades or so), ten Boom has already realized that most valuable of secrets: man can destroy your body, but not your soul.  Lina realizes this as well, and is able to find joy and escape in her drawing.  However, Lina never takes that next step – in which one must realize that only God can truly protect and keep that soul safe.  Thus, where ten Boom’s story is full of the confidence and true joy of someone whose soul is secure, Lina’s tale never loses the desperation of one frantically trying to cling to that soul herself.

Still, it is an excellent read, poignant and thought-provoking, and an excellent reminder of the evils of which man is capable.

A Measureless Peril



by Richard Snow

Published 2010

In this non-fiction book, Snow tells us about America’s World War II effort in the Atlantic Ocean.  While not as dramatic as the Pacific theater (although probably plenty dramatic if you were actually there!), the Atlantic nonetheless offers plenty of scope for adventure, what with convoying goods to Great Britain and fighting off German u-boats.  Snow’s father was in the Navy and served in the Atlantic during World War II, and so he lends a personal touch to the story.  Actually, I think that Snow strikes a perfect balance – we aren’t dragged down with details about his father and family, but by checking in with Snow Senior throughout the book, we are given some personal perspective of how things worked.

This book reads quite easily, managing to give an interesting and engaging overview without bogging down too  much in details.  As with most war books, there is a tendency to introduce dozens of names that are basically impossible to keep straight, but that’s life in the war.

Definite recommendation if you have any interest in World War II – this book presents an excellent outline of a little-talked-about part of that war.

Band of Brothers



by Stephen E. Ambrose

Published 2001 (originally 1992)

In this non-fiction book, Ambrose focuses on a select group of men in World War II–Easy Company, a parachute infantry regiment.  And let me state right here and now: I know nothing about the military or how it works.  So please don’t judge me if I am really, really bad at explaining different groups of people!

But part of the charm of this book was that even someone as military-ignorant as myself still found it an enjoyable and informative read.  While some sections would probably make a LOT more sense if I was more familiar with military rank, etc. (I did look it up a couple of times, but it just doesn’t seem to stay in my head…  some charts or lists would have been super helpful for me), overall, the book is just the story of the daily lives of these men, and anyone can understand that.

From their incredibly rigorous training stateside, to their first jump of the war, all the way to Hitler’s mountaintop retreat, we follow Easy Company, listen to their stories, and try to see the war from their eyes.

If you’re interested in WWII, this is a good read.  Ambrose is quite readable, and makes this story an interesting one.

The Forgotten War



by Stan Cohen


So, who can tell me about what was going on in Alaska during World War II?  Anyone?  Anyone at all?  And so, The Forgotten War turns out to be an appropriate title after all.  had never read anything about what was going on in the northwest part of our continent in the 1940’s.  And yet, at the time, the government was quite concerned that Japan would invade North America by jumping off from the Aleutian Islands–they really aren’t that far away from Japan.  Because history took the war to the Southern Pacific instead, we tend to forget the brief but intense focus of Alaska just after Pearl Harbor.

This book was, in fact, a pictorial history, so while the text was informative and interesting, the majority of the book was full of black-and-white photos of the region.  All in all, an interesting book, and a not-difficult read, about a piece of World War II history that is often neglected.

Concentration Camp USA: Japanese Americans & WWII



by Roger Daniels

Published 1972

My World War II reading is continuing.  My husband makes fun of me sometimes, asking me when he gets home what “FDR has been up to today.”  (I’m not a fan of that ill-fated president, to say the least.)

This book was an eye-opener.  I do not ever recall, throughout my school (including college) years, ever being told that virtually all Japanese Americans were interned in the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  This book is the story of a tragedy, a huge blemish on our country’s record of working for justice and equality.  That thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and forced into camps, losing their liberty, livelihoods, homes, and possessions in the process (and only a pittance would be restored to them after the war) for no reason other than that they happened to have been born in Japan, or to Japanese parents, is incredible.  No surprise that our government-run schools don’t particularly wish this piece of history to be discussed at length.

Between this book and Grapes of Wrathas an aside, I’ve decided that there is simply nothing good to say about Californians!  (I do hope that they will prove to be kinder and more accepting people as I progress throughout the rest of the twentieth century!)

I would definitely recommend this read, for those who are seeking something a bit deeper than the usual carefully-edited-to-make-us-look-like-the-objective-good-guys account of World War II.

I Have Lived a Thousand Years



by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Published 1999

In this autobiographical story, the author recounts her perspective of World War II as a Czechoslovakian Jewess.  She was 13 years old when the Germans invaded her country (in 1944).  Her story tells of the swift disintegration of her family’s quality of life, and the eventual separation as they were sent to concentration camps.  Through a series of events, Elli was able to stay with her mother throughout their terrible adventures.  The book covers a little over a year of time–they were liberated in 1945.

It is, obviously, a sad book.  And yet, like so many books about the Holocaust, it manages to offer hope, as well.  This story was very readable, with short chapters and a flowing narrative.

Perhaps the saddest part of the book, in a strange way, came after the liberation.  Returning home to find it not home-like at all.  Eventually, Elli and her (surviving) family immigrated to the United States.  This part of her life is recounted in a sequel to I Have Lived a Thousand Years, which I have checked out of the library to read soon, as well.

The Long Walk



by Slavomir Rawicz

Published 1956

This is a fascinating book.  It is the true story of a small group of men who escaped from a Siberian prison camp and walked to India.  INDIA, people, from SIBERIA.  ACROSS THE DESERT AND THE MOUNTAINS.

I definitely recommend this book.  It is actually a reasonably fast read.  Rawicz’s narrative is easy to follow and completely fascinating.  Although it is also rather dark and sad (for obvious reasons).  He is obviously a haunted man, but eventually he ended up in England, where he married and had a family, so his life, at least, had a happy ending.

But this story of survival is simply brilliant, and the kind of book that everyone should read, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves of how incredibly easy our lives are.  Books like this make me stop complaining and start being thankful.