Book Reviews

Reading List for October, 2021 – Vikings, Mobsters, and Habsburgs, oh my!

Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price

I’ve always been fascinated by the Vikings – more so since I discovered that my own family tree has a branch that leads back to those hearty Scandinavian marauders (my Scottish heritage goes back to a Norman invader from 1066). So I was excited to see “Children of Ash and Elm” listed in Al Mohler’s summer reading suggestions.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The author does a deep dive into Viking culture, exploring – perhaps better than any work I have read up until now – the historical, geopolitical, cultural, and even environmental factors that contributed to making the Vikings…well…Vikings.

My one point of irritation was the extra lengths to which the author went in order to be politically correct – specifically in trying to analyze Viking traditions according to current gender-related fads. Fortunately, there instances only cropped up a couple times, and proved to be just minor irritants in an overall excellent work.

Bugsy Siegel, The Dark Side of the American Dream by Michael Shnayerson

When one thinks of 1920s and 30s gangland, the Italians, the Irish, even the Russians come to mind. But the Jews? As author Michael Shnayerson points out, there was actually a sizeable and powerful Jewish component to mob life in the first part of the last century – and nobody personifies this more than gangster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel.

Born to impoverished immigrant parents in New York, Siegel learned the ropes of a life of crime on the tough streets of Brooklyn. The book shows all the facets of his complex life: brutal killer, devoted father, enemy to those who crossed him, friend of Israel, New York bootlegger, Las Vegas empresario…the list goes on.

This is one of the more fascinating biographies I have read in recent memory.

Churchill and Son by Josh Ireland

I am a great admirer of Churchill the statesman. I am not an admirer of Churchill the parent. In an attempt to compensate for the lack of attention given him by his own father, Randolph, he essentially spoiled his son – also named Randolph. This had devastating consequences for both men.

In “Churchill and Son” author Josh Ireland chronicles the tortured relationship between the two Churchills, and it is not pretty. A profitable read for history buffs…and fathers.

The Ratline by Philippe Sands

A well-written book that successfully weaves several related story lines: the life and war crimes of Otto von Wächter, his attempt to escape to South America after WWII, the existence of the “Ratline”, and his son’s attempts to rehabilitate his image. “The Ratline” offers a fascinating look into post-war Europe, and deals in a humane way with the moral dilemmas faced by Western society in the wake of that cataclysmic conflict.

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady

What if there was a single family that, over the course of centuries, amassed to themselves power, wealth and influence, using every means at their disposal – legitimate and otherwise – to advance their cause? What if their reach extended from Europe, to Asia, to the Americas? What if they owned some countries outright, and held sway in the political life of many others?
Wild conspiracy theory, right? Well…meet the Habsburgs, who fit the above description – to varying degrees – from at least the 11th century all the way to the outbreak of World War One.

In his book “The Habsburgs: To Rule the World” author Martyn Rady traces the fortunes of this influential family from its inception in central Europe to its final fall during the first World War. He in the process, he provides a fascinating look into the politics of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Europe as a whole.

Fun fact 1: The yellow in the Brazilian flag is due to the fact that the wife of Pedro I, who designed the original banner – was a Habsburg, and so included the color of her family crest. And so, as the author points out, the Brazilian national soccer team currently plays in Habsburg colors.

Fun fact 2: I currently follow a couple Habsburg descendants online who are very proud of their family history, and very involved in the political life of Europe.


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