My all-time favorite books

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad

War was only a rumor when Stalin began slowly, consciously, to turn his back on the city of Leningrad and, for reasons unknown, to ignore the clear signals that Hitler would invade Russia, with the ancient city of (formerly) St. Petersburg as a likely target. After the attacks began, just before the blockade of the city got underway, Stalin would have known that 3,400,000 people were to be fed with enough supplies on hand to last only about three or four weeks. Those who could survive the savage air bombardment would be doomed to slow starvation.

By October 1, 1941, only the army and civilian volunteers were guaranteed sufficient food. “Non-workers and children…received one-third of a loaf of poor quality bread a day…as time went on, bread, such as it was, more and more often was the only food issued.” The bread was an ersatz mix of denigrated rye flour, flax seeds and chaff.

The siege lasted 900 days, during which time people died by the thousands every day. During the coldest winter on record, corpses were left to lie in the snow, and the spring thaw brought forth the horrors of the stench of death and a lingering putrid flavor to the drinking water that no one who tasted it could ever forget.

On January 27, 1944, the siege ended. By then, starvation had begun to turn back on itself in a macabre beneficence – with fewer people left alive to share limited resources, more could hang on, and a kind of febrile vigor was in evidence. Against great odds, as the German offensive weakened, some survivors were able to break through the blockade. Olga Berggolts, a poet who had witnessed the ravages of the siege, wrote, “I firmly believe in miracles. You gave me that belief, my Leningrad.”

Immediately following the opening of the city it seemed there could be what was referred to as the Renaissance of Leningrad. An astonishing life force took hold. The city would be rebuilt, repudiating the attempts to destroy it. But again Stalin exerted a contravening force, continuing the purges to assure that the Leningrad Party would never rise again. As Salisbury so eloquently put it, “Nothing in the chamber of Stalin’s horrors equaled the Leningrad blockade and its aftermath…the blockade may have cost the lives of a million and a half people.”

Seen against the backdrop of current confusion and chaos in what was once the Soviet Union, one can only wonder how much forgetting a people is capable of — and how much forgiving.

Extracted from: © 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

The U-boat war: The German Submarine Service and the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-45

David Westwood

This describes how German expertise in the design and operation of submarines was kept alive through systematic covert evasion of the Treaty of Versailles – organized by the German navy and begun while the ink was scarcely dry on that undertaking. In addition, interpolated within a chronological account, there are various helpful digressions into the technology of anti-submarine warfare. Nor is the view from the Allied side neglected. Again, throughout this book there are copious statistics on force strengths and losses on both sides and through all phases of the battle.


Boss of Bosses by Joseph F. O’brien and Andris Kurins

The incredible true story of an undercover FBI agent who penetrated the New York mafia.

The five New York crime families had just put out a $500,000 contract for Pistone’s assassination and the FBI wanted to be completely clear about one thing – any attack on Pistone or his family would result in an unprecedented assault on organized crime. Paul Castellano accepted the message with mutual respect for his adversaries.

At the head of the family were three aging mobsters – Boss Paul Castellano, underboss Joseph “Piney” Armone, and consiglieri Joe Gallo – all benevolent grandfather-types who earned fatherly respect even from the FBI.

Serving under these three men were a mix of divided mafia captains, or capos. Chief among the street-wise capos was John Gotti. Mafia family life is a tense life, but tensions began to boil over when capos like Gotti saw their influence slip in a new and improved Gambino family, a “legitimate” Gambino family. Drugs and pornography were leaving some of the tougher capos with less influence among the crime family hierarchy.

The Gambino’s problems reached a critical point after the capos learned that the FBI had bugged Paul Castellano’s house, possibly revealing all sorts of family secrets. A federal indictment followed.

The capos were scared. What would Paul tell the FBI to save himself? Probably nothing, but the Gambinos were apparently not going to take that chance. All of this leads to the grim ending. On December 16, 1985, Paul Castellano took six bullets from a team of assassins. It was one of the most spectacular mob hits in years, all in public and outside a posh Manhattan restaurant.


The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum

Book Synopsis

He was dragged from the sea, his body riddled with bullets. There are a few clues: a frame of microfilm surgically implanted beneath the skin of his hip; evidence that plastic surgery has altered his face; strange things he says in his delirium, which could be code words. And a number on the film negative that leads to a bank account in Zurich, $4 million, and a name for the amnesiac: Jason Bourne. Now he is running for his life.



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