The Black Count:
Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Blurb: “The Black Count is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave — who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time. The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.”
The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Three Musketeers, all enduring staples of adventure fiction. They’ve stood the test of time and proudly wear the title “classic.” Who knew the stories were based on the life of the author’s father, a remarkable man born to a minor French noble and a slave woman on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti)?
This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for biography and richly deserves it for introducing us to the inspiring story of a man who went from slave to General in the French Revolutionary Army. Born Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; by the time he joins the army, he rejects his father’s name and title (Marquis de la Pailleterie) and takes his slave mother’s name–Dumas. His dispatches from the front are signed simply “Alex Dumas.” He rises through the ranks from private to General and is Commander of the Calvary in Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign. His adventures and battles are a compelling story all by themselves. But Reiss gives us much more.
While many of us may know the basics of the French Revolution, and some have studied the gory details, this book gives us a new angle. General Alex Dumas reached his pinnacle through his own intelligence, perseverance, personal bravery, and ambition. But he would not have been allowed to during any earlier time in European history. The French who fought in the American War for Independence came back to France with a revolutionary spirit and a thirst for equality–not only for themselves, but all Frenchman, free and slave. They were the first country in Europe to not only abolish slavery, but also to grant full rights of citizenship to “men of color.” Free black men voted in assemblies, studied in elite French academies, fought in integrated military units, and rose to positions of authority and command in the military and government. This expression of egalite and fraternite lasted until Napoleon took power and (with the rich planter class backing him) reversed all those hard-won freedoms and rights.
The third layer to this book is the enduring and loving relationship between the General and his son (who eventually became the novelist Alexandre Dumas). Reiss begins and ends his book with General Dumas’ death and the impact it had on his four-year-old namesake. Throughout the book, he illuminates the real life adventures that inspire the boy, many years later, to immortalize his father in fiction. What I found most sad was that it seemed the son suffered much more harshly for his race than his father. Raised in poverty (Napoleon withheld Dumas’ pension after he died), denied a good secondary education, and taunted by racial epithets during his literary career; Alexandre Dumas rose above all to create enduring and beloved fiction. His martial father would have been proud.
A good biographer presents his subject in the context of the times with lively and engaging writing. Reiss delivers with a well-documented book that pulls at the heart strings while giving us a window into European race relations of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century and the true stories behind some of the best adventure fiction written. Highly recommended.
About the Author
Tom Reiss is an author, historian, and biographer whose work resurrects the lives of brilliant outsiders and rebels in times of global upheaval.
His most recent book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN Award.
He is also the author of “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life,” a finalist for the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize, and Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, the first inside exposé of the European neo-Nazi movement.
His books have been translated into more than 35 languages. Before he supported himself with his writing, Tom worked as a hospital orderly, small business entrepreneur, and an actor in Japanese gangster movies.
Watch Tom Reiss discuss his book in the three videos below:
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Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
by Pamela D. Toler
Who says women don’t go to war?
From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor. The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly—Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other identities.
Just as Women’s History Month closes for 2019, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History joins my research bookshelf with a handful of academically rigorous books. These books on “women doing unexpected things” include surveys of warrior queens, music composers, mathematicians and philosophers, as well as dozens of biographies of famous, accomplished women. I have several more popular history books on scandalous women, bad princesses, and overlooked scientists. The latter seem to dominate the marketplace. I enjoy their breezy modern take while introducing the reader to (mostly) forgotten women. (Reviews of those books can be found here.)
Needless to say, this was not an “unexpected history” for me—at lease in terms of the female historical figures. From the mythical Mulan to the female Dahomean King’s Guards (likely inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje personal guards of the Black Panther movie), I was aware of most of Toler’s subjects. What was unexpected—and most welcome!—was the analysis and in-depth research. Unlike most authors of these survey books, Toler is an academic.
Thankfully she doesn’t write like one. Her prose is clear and readable.
Toler organizes her material into eight chapters with titles such as “Don’t Mess with Mama” and “Her Father’s Daughter.” In each chapter she surveys typical women warriors, from across time and cultures, who fit the title. She puts their decision to fight in the context of the times and explores the consequences of taking these dramatic actions. After every two survey chapters, a several-page “Checkpoint” covers a single subject in more detail. Substantial footnotes provide additional information and source references.
Toler concludes her book by asking the question: Are these warrior women “insignificant exceptions”? Most academics and historical military commanders felt so. Modern US military leaders used that to argue against allowing women in combat roles. They argued this at a time when Israeli women were drafted and served with their male counterparts. They argued this long after all female battalions fought in WWI and WWII. They argued this long after Soviet “Night Witches”—an all female bomber squadron (women pilots, navigators, and maintenance crews)—terrorized the Nazis on the Eastern front. Several ex-military women ran for US congress in 2018, highlighting their impressive service records, and many won. The bravery and accomplishments of modern women in combat around the world should forever lay that argument to rest.
Toler answers her own question: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell no!”
Highly recommended. Check out Author Pamela D. Toler talking about her book Women Warriors in the video below.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
- Title: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
- Author: Pamela D. Toler
- Publisher: Beacon Press (February 26, 2019)
- Available in: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
- ISBN-10: 0807064327
- ISBN-13: 978-0807064320
About the Author
Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults. Her newest book, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is due out February, 2019. Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Time.com.
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Leadership in Turbulent Times
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson—to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.”
I really looked forward to this book. I’ve studied leadership—not at the presidential level, but I have worked with several Fortune 50 CEOs and dozens of executives in my professional career. I also taught leadership and change management to ambitious young managers in MBA courses. Effective leadership is key to a company/country’s ability to survive and thrive. In addition, I’ve had an abiding interest in the lives of Lincoln; and Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt and have read several biographies about them. Although I’ve seen Doris Kearns Goodwin on TV frequently, the only one of her books I’d read previously was Team of Rivals, an 890-page tome about Lincoln’s time in office, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I looked at Leadership in Turbulent Times from two perspectives: Was it good history/biography? Was it good leadership analysis?
My answer to both questions (with one caveat) is “Yes!” (more…)
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by Kate Quinn
“The Huntress tells the story of three people in search of answers: Nina Markova, an ace Russian fighter pilot, is one of Stalin’s infamous Night Witches, the first band of women ever allowed to fly bomber runs during a war. Ian Graham, a former journalist turned Nazi hunter, is struggling to rid postwar Europe of the Nazis who escaped retribution. And Jordan McBride is a teenager whose life in Boston takes an interesting turn when her new stepmother arrives with a war’s worth of secrets. All three of their lives are touched by a Nazi assassin known as “The Huntress.” Their search for her and for answers will lead them to each other and, ultimately, toward more danger than they ever could have expected.”
I have yet to read a Kate Quinn novel I didn’t like. She has a sure touch for developing relatable characters and putting them into exciting situations. Quinn’s skill pulls the reader from page to page and ensures reluctance to put the book down. The Huntress delivers that magic in this tale of Nazi hunters in post-WWII.
The “present” story-line is mostly told from British former war correspondent Ian Graham’s point of view, covering a seven month period from April to October 1950. Deeply damaged by his experiences in the war and coverage of the Nuremberg trials, Ian gives up journalism to become a Nazi hunter. His partner is an American ex-GI (and one-quarter Jew) Tony Rodomovsky, who spent the war as an interpreter and has something to prove. He uses his charm and language skills to great effect. They are joined in their search for a Nazi known as the Huntress by Graham’s war bride Nina Markova—the only known person who had faced the murderer and still lived. (more…)
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Priestess of Ishana
by Judith Starkston
“A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery and jails him under penalty of death. Isolated in prison, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.”
As readers of this blog know, I have a preference for stories about little-known historical women. I think women have been systematically erased from history over time and it takes a lot of effort to uncover their stories and restore them to their proper place. But let’s face it. Sifting through academic papers and archaeological reports is way beyond what most busy people will sign up for. That’s where the historical novelist comes in. We do the hard work and the public reaps the reward: an exciting story, an introduction to a different culture, and (maybe) some new insight into history and the people who make it. Judith Starkston delivers on all those promises. (more…)
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by Margaret Atwood
Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge. After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, retribution, and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.
I love Margaret Atwood and have read nearly everything she’s written. She’s experiencing a renaissance now because of the Hulu award-winning TV series based on her 1986 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.If you’ve wondered way some women have been showing up in full-length red gowns and white bonnets to protest legislation limiting a women’s right choose or other restrictive laws—this book/show is why. If you haven’t read the book—you should. But I digress…
Hag Seed (a reference to the “monster” Caliban) did not disappoint. The publisher, Hogarth Books, is putting out a series of novels by famous authors retelling Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve read two others in the series and this one is my favorite—so far. Atwood drew “The Tempest” and gave us a workman-like effort with touches of whimsy. She employs the “play within a play” trope where the main character Felix/Prospero is teaching and directing “The Tempest” in a prison literacy program, while simultaneously living out the plot of the play. (more…)
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