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Search tags: biographies-memoirs
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review 2018-09-23 02:01
AGAINST ALL ODDS - FROM THE RUSSIAN FRONT TO FREEDOM IN IRELAND
Against the Odds: Survival on the Russian Front 1944-1945 - John Stieber

"AGAINST THE ODDS" is a story that seems too incredible to have been real. But as the saying goes: Truth is often stranger than fiction. And so, it was with John Stieber, who, along with his older sister Erika, had been born in Czechoslovakia, the son of an engineer who had served bravely in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. Stieber's father, owing to his engineering expertise, was given an opportunity to work in England during the mid-1920s. As a result, Stieber's family lived in England for several years. Stieber himself states that English came to be his first language, though both his parents were native German speakers. (Both Stieber and his sister would acquire fluency in both languages, which later proved advantageous to them during the early postwar years.)

Stieber's father completed his contract and returned to Czechoslovakia in the early 1930s. Stieber struggled to learn Czech in school and admits that he didn't enjoy his time in school there very much. His time in Czechoslovakia proved to be brief, because his father's employer had another job assignment for him to undertake, this one in Ireland. Stieber came to love Ireland and would live there for about 6 years. Sometime in 1939, his parents decided to enroll both Stieber and his sister into secondary school in Germany. With war being declared in September, Stieber and his sister would be stuck in Germany for the duration. (Their parents remained in Ireland, which they later made their home.) 

After Stieber completed his studies, he was called up to serve in an anti-aircraft battery in 1943. He also served in the National Labor Service (Arbeitsdienst). Early in the following year, age 18, Stieber entered military service with the Fallschirm-Panzerkorps Hermann Göring and is sent to the Russian Front, where over the next year, he has many harrowing experiences and escapes death on several occasions. Indeed, Stieber would emerge from the war as one of the few men in his unit to survive and avoid being placed in a POW camp. 

I very much enjoyed reading this memoir, which I highly recommend to anyone who loves human interest stories.

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review 2018-09-15 02:23
FROM CLIPPED WINGS TO SOARING WITH THE EAGLES
Best Foot Forward - Colin Hodgkinson

"BEST FOOT FORWARD" is Colin Hodgkinson's story of the long struggle he waged after surviving an air crash while in training with the Fleet Air Arm in May 1939 -- and sustaining life-altering injuries that would have humbled a lesser person --- to resume as normal a life as possible. As part of this process, Hodgkinson --- with the great Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter ace and Wing Leader Douglas Bader (who, despite having similar life-altering injuries, was able to resume flying with the RAF upon the outbreak of war in September 1939) as a prime example and inspiration --- was given the opportunity to resume flight training with the Fleet Air Arm. 

Subsequently, Hodgkinson was able to wrangle a transfer to the RAF, where he successfully completed a rigorous flight training program, and was assigned to a frontline fighter squadron late in 1942. 

Hodgkinson would fly the redoubtable Supermarine Spitfire in combat over Europe through most of 1943, manage to shoot down 2 enemy fighters in aerial combat, and survive a stint as a prisoner of war before being repatriated to the UK in late 1944. This book is essentially a recapitulation of Hodgkinson's life from a childhood in the English countryside to the early postwar years. It has both a forthrightness and eloquence which makes for rewarding reading.

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review 2018-09-08 07:14
A TRIBUTE TO THOSE WOMEN PILOTS WHO PERSISTED - AND MADE AVIATION HISTORY
Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History - Keith O'Brien

This book sheds light on the unsung contributions made by women pilots to aviation between 1927 and 1937, a time often referred to as the Golden Age of Aviation. Its focus is on 5 women aviators of the 1920s and 1930s (i.e., Louise Thaden, Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, and Ruth Nichols, whose pilot license was signed by aviation pioneer Orville Wright himself) and their struggles to gain acceptance and respect in the field of aviation. Aviation in its early days was considered more of a "man's sport" and women were discouraged from being a part of it. But these women -- many of whom proved to be extraordinary fliers in their own right --- were made of sterner stuff. These 5 women persisted - and some of them paid the ultimate price for that. 

The only quibble I have with this book is the author's frequent use of the word 'airship' in place of 'airplane'. By common understanding in the aviation industry, 'airship' refers to a 'dirigible', a lighter-than air machine. For that reason, I've taken a star away from what otherwise would have been a 5-star rating.

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review 2018-09-01 23:00
A STAR THAT BLAZED BRIGHT THEN FELL FROM SIGHT
Helmut Wick: An Illustrated Biography of the Luftwaffe Ace and Commander of Jagdgeschwader 2 during the Battle of Britain - Herbert Ringlstetter

This is one of the best illustrated biographies of a renowned fighter pilot that I've yet read. This book is replete with a wealth of fascinating photos that spans Helmut Wick's life, from his birth in 1915 in Mannheim, Germany, thru his flight training days, and on to Wick's rise as the Luftwaffe's premiere fighter ace culminating in his death in aerial combat near the Isle of Wight on November 28, 1940. There are also 3 appendices at the back of the book containing a list of Helmut Wick's confirmed (and unconfirmed) aerial victories, a "brief description of the aircraft types shot down by Wick", and illustrations of aircraft Wick flew as well as those of the enemy he faced in combat in 1939 and 1940.

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review 2018-08-31 08:19
LE SCANDALE BETTENCOURT
The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris - Tom Sancton

I was attracted to "THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris" by its cover. It caught my eye in a local independent bookstore several weeks ago. I weighed the book carefully in my hands and glanced through its pages before deciding to buy it. What an unexpected merry ride this book has given me! 

"THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR" at its heart is a story about a scandal that arose over the past decade from one of France's wealthiest families (who normally kept a very low profile). It was a scandal that began as a family drama between mother (Liliane Bettencourt, daughter of Eugène Schueller [1881-1957], a pharmacist by profession who founded L'Oréal, "the world's leading company in cosmetics and beauty" products -- who herself was one of the world's wealthiest women) and daughter (Françoise Bettencourt Meyers) which, once leaked to the press in France, became a major scandal touching upon politics and L'Oréal's shadowy history, as well as the family's murky secrets arising out of the Second World War. This book had many layers that captivated my interest and read at times like a spellbinding thriller. 

Before reading "THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR", I knew very, very little about L'Oréal. For me, it was a simply a name of some big cosmetics company that dealt with beauty and fashion whose products I had seen advertised on TV over the years. Thank you, Tom Sancton, for this book. It's truly impressive and reflects well the research that went into its creation and development. The author taught me a lot and deepened my already wide-ranging fascination with French history and culture. This book is a keeper.

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