Nonfiction Roundup, Spring 2017

There are a ton of wonderful books of all kinds in this quarter's nonfiction roundup! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Get ready for an enormous nonfiction roundup post! I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately–everything from history to parenting to religion to memoirs–and I haven’t had time to review them. Until today! Take a look at these short reviews if you’re looking to add to your nonfiction list. I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Interrupted

What happens when Jesus interrupts the average life? Interrupted encourages believers to ask if their lives bring integrity to the gospel. Follow the faith journey of author and fellow disciplemaker Jen Hatmaker and rediscover Jesus among the least of us.

This was my first Jen Hatmaker book, and I immediately fell in love. Interrupted is an amazingly powerful look at what Christianity can and should be like–giving to and serving the people in our communities and around the world. It will break your heart as you look at how privileged we are in the U.S., but it will also give you hope. Jen’s journey pairs statistics with stories in a way that made me feel slightly optimistic for the future of American Christianity.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

7

7 is the true story of how Jen (along with her husband and her children to varying degrees) took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.

Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. They would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.” So, what’s the payoff from living a deeply reduced life? It’s the discovery of a greatly increased God—a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends social experiment to become a radically better existence.

I quickly followed up Interrupted with 7, an earlier Jen Hatmaker book. This one is a little less sweeping, as it focuses mainly on Jen and her family as they attempt to simplify and streamline their lives. The idea of living sustainably and simply as a way of following God is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and this book offers a lot of great ideas on how to simplify different categories of life.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Gift of Failure

This groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.

You know I love books about learning well and parenting well, and whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or both, this book has some wonderful advice. The Gift of Failure looks at how failure and hard work is the best way for kids to learn how to succeed (in education jargon, it focuses on autonomy-supportive parenting and fostering a growth mindset). As someone who has seen the huge difference a fixed mindset or a growth mindset can make in my students, I loved this book. It made me even more confident in my decision to always praise hard work instead of talent, and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it when I have kids of my own.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.

Apparently I’m not a huge Brene Brown fan. Like the last book of hers I read, I found Daring Greatly well written but not super revelatory. (To be totally honest, I got bored about halfway through and remember very little about the book.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Choose Your Own Autobiography

Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened? Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed.

Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song.

Apparently I’m not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan either… The idea is awesome: You can live NPH’s life as if it were a choose your own adventure book, but I just didn’t care enough about his life to be completely sucked in. Of course, NPH is a funny guy, and his reflections on life in Hollywood and the paths his life could have taken are fun to read, but I was expecting something more than just a few laughs.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stones into Schools

In this dramatic first-person narrative, Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women-all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.

Stones into Schools is filled with fascinating stories of how the author and his team face danger (and bureaucracy) in order to build schools so girls in Afghanistan can learn. This book is packed with adventure, danger, humor, and tears. It offers a bit of history about the region in which Greg works, but this history is tied closely to the modern-day stories of the people who live there, so it never gets boring. If you’re interested in girls’ education in the Middle East, this book is for you (and no, you don’t have to have read Three Cups of Tea first).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hidden Figures

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives – and their country’s future.

You’ve probably heard of this book, as it’s the basis for the recent blockbuster film of the same name. Hidden Figures offers a view on an interesting, little-known part of history–the African-American women who put Americans on the moon. Some of the book was a bit dry for me, unfortunately.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Anne Frank Remembered

The reminiscences of Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Frank family in Amsterdam during the Second World War, presents a vivid story of life under Nazi occupation.

This is a powerful look at Anne Frank by the woman who hid her family. I learned a lot about the events of WWII in the Netherlands; I hadn’t realized how much they suffered during the war. Miep describes her relationship with the Frank family and her struggles to stay alive and resist the Nazis even after Anne and her family were taken. It’s a tragic story, of course, but also fascinating. I love that we get to hear a piece of history from someone who witnessed it all first hand.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Year of Living Prayerfully

Jared Brock sensed that something was missing in his prayer life, so he embarked on a yearlong journey to rediscover the power of prayer (and eat some delicious falafel).

FOLLOW JARED ON A 37,000-MILE TRIP AROUND THE WORLD AS HE…
* Dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
* Discovers the 330-year-old home of Brother Lawrence
* Burns his clothes at the end of the world
* Attends the world’s largest church
* Attempts fire walking (with only minor burns)

When I first picked up this book, I thought it might be gimmicky, but I was surprised at the depth the author sometimes reached. It gives an interesting look at prayer traditions from everyone from the Hasidic Jews to the Holy Land to Greek Orthodox to the Quakers to “outer fringe” people. As Jared meets Christians from around the world and from different faith traditions, he tries each of their prayer traditions in order to grow closer to God. Just be aware that this book is more of a memoir than a “how-to” book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything is a wonderfully wry account of how Karen Le Billon was able to alter her children’s deep-rooted, decidedly unhealthy North American eating habits while they were all living in France.

At once a memoir, a cookbook, a how-to handbook, and a delightful exploration of how the French manage to feed children without endless battles and struggles with pickiness, French Kids Eat Everything features recipes, practical tips, and ten easy-to-follow rules for raising happy and healthy young eaters.

The information this book offers on how French children are taught to enjoy foods of all kinds (and never snack or eat without an adult’s permission) was very interesting. I have a fascination with French parenting and plan on trying out some of their ideas with my own kids someday. However, I found the author whiny and inflexible and her kids spoiled. Despite her insistence on moving to France to be near her husband’s family, she refuses to help her kids assimilate to French food culture, and she herself is a very picky eater. I wish this book had been more how-to and less memoir, because I couldn’t stand the author.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Symphony for the City of the Dead

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.

This book is about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work during Stalin’s rise to power and the Stalingrad siege. As a music major, I already knew a fair bit about Shostakovich’s music, so I found it fascinating to learn more about his life in Soviet Russia. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I loved that it interjects bits of Shostakovich’s music as they discuss it. Some parts are gruesome and horrifying, so although Symphony for the City of the Dead is geared toward a YA audience, be forewarned in case you (or your child) is not prepared to read about cannibalism.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

This book talks about the women soldiers and spies who were active during the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. Their stories are interesting, especially considering that during this time, women were not expected (or allowed) to do many of the things these women did. If you’re interested in the Civil War, this book will give you a new perspective.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Audio Books Roundup

I'm not a big audio book fan, but I've been listening to more and more on my commute. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m not a big fan of audio books, but my commute to work has nearly doubled since our recent move. Because my favorite podcasts only update once a week, that still leaves me with a lot of driving time to fill. So on the days that I don’t feel like listening to music, I’ve started turning to audio books. I have a huge collection from the SYNC summer audio book program, and I’ve listened to a few of those.

The Perfect Storm

It was the storm of the century – a tempest created by so rare a combination of factors that meteorologists deemed it “the perfect storm.”

When it struck in October 1991, there was virtually no warning. “She’s comin’ on, boys, and she’s comin’ on strong,” radioed Captain Billy Tyne of the Andrea Gail from off the coast of Nova Scotia. Soon afterward, the boat and its crew of six disappeared without a trace. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This nonfiction book offers an interesting look at commercial fishing, how hurricanes work, drowning, and true life deaths and rescues from the storm of the century. If you’ve seen the movie The Perfect Storm, you know the central characters from the book, but you’ll be surprised at how much more information is contained here. Although the crew of the Andrea Gail did not survive, there were many other boats in need of rescue, and the stories of these rescue attempts are both harrowing and heartwarming.

“Meteorologist see perfect in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm.”

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Here in Harlem

These fifty-four poems, all in different voices but written by one hand, do sing. They make a joyful noise as the author honors the people-the nurses, students, soldiers, and ministers-of his beloved hometown, Harlem. Worship with Deacon Allen, who loves “a shouting church,” and study with Lois Smith, who wants “a school named after me.” Don’t get taken by Sweet Sam DuPree, who “conned a shark right outta his fin.” And never turn your back on Delia Pierce, who claims she “ain’t the kind to talk behind nobody’s back” while doing precisely that-with panache. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The audio version of this book of poetry is amazing–there is a different narrator for each character, and there is jazz/blues music and sound effects in the background. The poetry itself is great, too. The collection of poems talks about life in Harlem from the viewpoint of people of all ages and occupations, and Walter Dean Myers’ writing makes each character come alive.

If you decide to read this book, I strongly suggest the audio version. It is just wonderful.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Courage Has No Color

World War II is raging, and thousands of American soldiers are fighting overseas against the injustices brought on by Hitler. Back on the home front, the injustice of discrimination against African Americans plays out as much on Main Street as in the military. Enlisted black men are segregated from white soldiers and regularly relegated to service duties. At Fort Benning, Georgia, First Sergeant Walter Morris’s men serve as guards at The Parachute School, while the white soldiers prepare to be paratroopers. Morris knows that for his men to be treated like soldiers, they have to train and act like them, but would the military elite and politicians recognize the potential of these men as well as their passion for serving their country?

Tanya Lee Stone examines the role of African Americans in the military through the history of the Triple Nickles, America’s first black paratroopers, who fought in a little-known attack on the American West by the Japanese. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, in the words of Morris, “proved that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I was really interested by this book, as the Triple Nickles are not a group I ever learned much about in school. The stories of racism in America, even as our troops battled one of the most evil regimes in history, are horrible. In particular, I’ll never forget one African American soldier’s description of how much better the German POWs were treated than the black soldiers.

Still, if you can face up to these awful moments (and I think we have the responsibility to do so), you’ll find a lot of good here. Although the writing itself is nothing special, the story is important and interesting.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.

Newbery Reviews: El Deafo and George Washington’s World

El Deafo is an adorable and interesting graphic novel on growing up deaf. (George Washington's World wasn't bad, either!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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These two Newbery books don’t really have anything to do with each other (other than the award). El Deafo is a 2015 honor book, a graphic novel about growing up deaf. George Washington’s World, on the other hand, was an honor book in 1942, and it fleshes out the history and leaders of the 1700s. The one thing these books have in common? They’re both really good!

El Deafo

“Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)

El Deafo is a cute graphic novel that tackles the joys and difficulties of growing up deaf. It’s based on the author’s experiences, which I loved. This book definitely deserves the Newbery honor it received–it’s well written and drawn, and it offers representation to an underrepresented group. You’ll enjoy the book if you want to learn more about growing up deaf, but every kid will also be able to relate to the topic of not fitting in.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

George Washington’s World

This book offers information on the leaders and events around the world during the 1700s. Although you might think from the title that this book focuses mainly on American history, that’s not the case. Each chapter focuses on a different character from history, from Catherine the Great to George III to John and Abigail Adams. Although the Revolutionary War is the main event, the French Revolution, the Seven Years War, and other events and leaders from Russia to China to Australia to Africa are also included. The book is full of great drawings, maps, and musical snippets, so there’s a lot of visual interest (important in a history book of this length!).

At first I was put off by the cheery way most events and people are talked about (war, slavery, colonization, etc.), but later I started to appreciate the subtlety–none of the people discussed were wholly bad or good, and the author doesn’t shy away from mentioning the less savory aspects of our forefathers’ lives, even if she doesn’t dwell on them. The other thing I love about this book is that it was updated by the author’s daughter to add diversity. This book does a better job of discussing the roles of women, Native Americans, and African-Americans during this time period than you would expect, and I really appreciated that.

Many kids may not enjoy this book because it is pretty lengthy and a straight up history book, but if you or your child has a deep interest in this time period, it’s worth looking into.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Devil in the White City

This history of the 1893 World's Fair tells the story of an architect and a serial killer. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I got this book for Christmas, after discussing with my roommates how interested I was in the book, gruesome as it promised to be. I spent about two weeks around the holidays in a haze of sickness, so I spent a lot of time reading (and, let’s be honest, watching Phineas and Ferb on Netflix) and sped through this book in a couple of days.

If you’re not familiar with the premise, this book talks about the history of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, in particular the lives and actions of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s architect, and Henry H. Holmes, one of the first and most famous serial killers in the United States. Burnham spent his days solving problems in the still-developing city of Chicago, trying to overcome the swampy land selected for the fairgrounds, the threat of disease and economic turmoil, the snobbery of the east coast toward Chicago, and the bureaucratic entanglements of the fair’s leaders. Holmes, on the other hand, used his considerable charm and good looks to lure young women into his “hotel,” where he killed many of them in chillingly creative ways.

Larson does a good job of switching back and forth between the two men’s lives, giving us their backstory but always tying things back to the World’s Fair. I knew a fair amount about the Chicago World’s Fair, but I never knew the struggles that the builders and designers faced in reaching their deadlines and getting enough people to come to the fair to make it worthwhile. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I heard of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who benefited so much from the World’s Fair landing right outside his door. His story was fascinating, albeit kind of terrifying. Holmes seemed to have an incredible ability to charm and con people, and he had a real (and disturbing) interest in murdering people once he was finished with them. He had his home, later branded the “World’s Fair Hotel,” built by many different builders so that none of them would know the true extent of the things he wanted installed, including a walk-in vault that could be turned into a gas chamber, a dissection table, and a crematorium. (Needless to say, although Larson never veers into gruesome detail, this book is not for the faint of heart!)

Although I sometimes got bored with the intricacies of how the fair was built, on the whole, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a close-up look at one of the biggest peacetime events in American history, and the look into the light and dark sides of the World’s Fair makes this book a really interesting read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Schindler’s List

Schindler's List is an incredible read that totally lives up to the movie based upon it. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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If you haven’t yet seen the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Schindler’s List, you absolutely must. It’s a heart-wrenching story of a German who used his power, influence, and charisma to save over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. This book by Thomas Keneally is the source for that fantastic movie, and I have to say that in some respects, the book is even better.

First of all, although Oskar Schindler’s story is told in the style of a novel, none of it is made up. Schindler’s flaws and virtues are equally discussed, and stories which may be apocryphal are noted as such. Keneally got his information from the group of Schindler’s Jews and from documentation of the time. I found this even more compelling than the movie, which (of necessity) had to add to and subtract from the facts in order to make the story flow.

Unlike the movie, this book didn’t make me sob. I did tear up a few times–who doesn’t, reading about the horrors of the Holocaust?–but it wasn’t quite as emotional. But I think that’s a good thing. Because the book sticks to the facts and doesn’t attempt to tell a sweeping story, the characters and events described get a chance to stand out individually. Schindler was a fascinating guy who used his charm and his connections with the black market to save people he had no connection with, and I loved getting to know him as a real person.

Some of the stories in this book just seem unreal. Many of the events are so brutal, so random, that it hardly seems like they could have happened in real life–but they did. Schindler’s List isn’t a fun read, exactly, but it is a fascinating and chilling and, in the end, hopeful look at one of the darkest times in history. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, this book is worth a read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

If you’re interested in fictional books about World War II, I’ve got you covered. Check out All the Light We Cannot See, Code Name Verity, and The Singing Tree.

Newbery Review: An American Plague

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Because I’ve been having trouble posting a third weekly post with my new work schedule, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature: the weekend Mini Review!  This short review will be posted on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday each week.

This Newbery book was fantastic!  I loved it way more than I ever enjoy nonfiction books.  I kept reading sentences and factoids aloud to my husband, and I devoured it in two hours.

The book talks about the yellow fever plague that swept through Philadelphia in 1793, killing thousands in a matter of weeks.  It is compulsively readable and full of interesting facts about treatments, politics, racial issues, and disease control at the time.  I absolutely loved it.  Any kid (or adult!) who’s interested in lesser-known areas of history will love it, too.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Review Copy: A Simple Guide to WWI

This fully illustrated history of WWI is perfect for kids, or anyone who needs a quick refresher on the events and statistics of the Great War. #spon | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a free galley of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

A short review for a short book: This book of WWI history is exactly what it claims to be.  It’s full of infographics, simple maps, child-appropriate explanations, and statistics about the first World War.

I thought this book was adorable.  The illustrations were simple and clean, and they helped get the basic points across without becoming too cutesy or distracting.  My one complaint is that the book is so short that I didn’t get a good feel for what the daily events and consequences of the war were.  If the book had been about WWII or the Civil War instead, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but I know much less about World War I.

This fully illustrated history of WWI is perfect for kids, or anyone who needs a quick refresher on the events and statistics of the Great War.  It’s short and sweet, and it gets the major points across without bogging you down in the details.  It would be a great companion to a more in-depth study of the events of WWI.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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