Tag: memoir

November 22, 2017

Review | A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Review | A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev GolinkinA Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin
Publisher: Doubleday, November 2014
Pages: 307
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A compelling story of two intertwined journeys: a Jewish refugee family fleeing persecution and a young man seeking to reclaim a shattered past. In the twilight of the Cold War (the late 1980s), nine-year old Lev Golinkin and his family cross the Soviet border with only ten suitcases, $600, and the vague promise of help awaiting in Vienna. Years later, Lev, now an American adult, sets out to retrace his family's long trek, locate the strangers who fought for his freedom, and in the process, gain a future by understanding his past.

Lev Golinkin's memoir is the vivid, darkly comic, and poignant story of a young boy in the confusing and often chilling final decade of the Soviet Union. It's also the story of Lev Golinkin, the American man who finally confronts his buried past by returning to Austria and Eastern Europe to track down the strangers who made his escape possible . . . and say thank you. Written with biting, acerbic wit and emotional honesty in the vein of Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis, Golinkin's search for personal identity set against the relentless currents of history is more than a memoir—it's a portrait of a lost era. This is a thrilling tale of escape and survival, a deeply personal look at the life of a Jewish child caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Union, and a provocative investigation into the power of hatred and the search for belonging. Lev Golinkin achieves an amazing feat—and it marks the debut of a fiercely intelligent, defiant, and unforgettable new voice.

Moving is scary. The uprooting of the place called home usually strikes fear in all of us, subconsciously or otherwise. Especially kids. Especially when the home you’re leaving is in the Soviet Union.

Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a poignant, unexpectedly funny at times and terrifying at others, unique take on one of the more unspoken periods of modern history: the emigration of Jews from the U.S.S.R.

I knew life in the Soviet Union couldn’t have been easy, but Golinkin’s depiction of his Jewish upbringing and the struggles he and his family endured merely because of their ethnicity was heartbreaking. Golinkin’s narration was threaded with a sort of absence that children have when speaking of hard memories in their past. Instead of slowing down the narrative, it brought an emotional touch, a sense that the author was talking to me in real time instead of words on a page.

The first difficult part (buckle your seatbelts, there’s a few in this book) came when Lev and his family finally got permission to leave the country. The catch? They could only take two suitcases and some cash. Everything else, especially items of value, belonged to the country, not them. Their personal documents, including passports, transcripts, projects, writings – they were all to be left behind. If you didn’t, the border check would find them…and you didn’t want that.

So when Lev left his homeland, all he had was a backpack with a few changes of clothes, a small turtle carving, and a bear. Oh, those eight crates of vodka? Those were used as bribery to ensure the family’s safe passage out of the Soviet Union to Vienna.

All of these elements are fascinating on their own, but what tied them all together was Golinkin’s narration. It was personal, vivid, emotional and yet detached all at once. It had an authenticity that brought his past and his present search together into one cohesive book that I couldn’t put down.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a surprisingly refreshing yet emotional memoir of a harrowing escape and determined pursuit of the American dream. Golinkin’s work quickly became and still is one of my favorite nonfiction reads of the year.

4 Stars

Posted November 22, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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November 9, 2015

Review | Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Review | Sous Chef by Michael GibneySous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney
Publisher: Ballantine Books, March 2014
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
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The back must slave to feed the belly. . . . In this urgent and unique book, chef Michael Gibney uses twenty-four hours to animate the intricate camaraderie and culinary choreography in an upscale New York restaurant kitchen. Here readers will find all the details, in rapid-fire succession, of what it takes to deliver an exceptional plate of food—the journey to excellence by way of exhaustion.
Told in second-person narrative, Sous Chef is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This exhilarating account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.
In a kitchen where the highest standards are upheld and one misstep can result in disaster, Sous Chef conjures a greater appreciation for the thought, care, and focus that go into creating memorable and delicious fare. With grit, wit, and remarkable prose, Michael Gibney renders a beautiful and raw account of this demanding and sometimes overlooked profession, offering a nuanced perspective on the craft and art of food and service.

In my experience, there are three types of food books. The brilliant, the okay, and the horrible. It comes down to the strength and integrity of the narrative voice: how much do they make us believe/invest in them, their stories, and their lives? 

Michael Gibney’s Sous Chef is falls into the second category. The decision to make the entire story in second person is a brave one, and I applaud him trying to bring the reader into the world of the kitchen. It felt too disjointed and odd – I would have been more comfortable with the first person persona, seeing the based-upon-true-events day in the life through his eyes instead of his/my own. 

I became really irritated with the narrative about halfway through the book as he’s/I’m organizing the speech for the wait staff’s preservice with the kitchen. Gibney uses the phrase “You need to know” 24 times in two and a half pages (beginning on the bottom of page 67 to the very last sentence of page 69). This repetition drove me insane, draining away from Gibney’s very obvious love of food and the job. It wasn’t engaging; it was tiresome. 

The shining light is that love of food. Gibney, your second person narrator, appreciates food in a completely different realm than the majority of us. His narrative as he describes his knifes, their balances, and lull and noise of the kitchen…it’s breathtaking, but overwhelmed by the second person narration. 

Sous Chef is okay. It’s a strong book in the love of food, but the narration drops its power quite a bit. But for a quick read, it’ll do.

3 Stars

Posted November 9, 2015 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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October 2, 2015

10 Reasons You Need to Read “You Deserve A Drink” Today

10 Reasons You Need to Read “You Deserve A Drink” TodayYou Deserve a Drink: Boozy Misadventures and Tales of Debauchery by Mamrie Hart, Grace Helbig
Publisher: Plume, May 2015
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
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The riotously funny debut from the drinking star with a YouTube problem
Since launching her YouTube channel “You Deserve a Drink” in 2011, comedian Mamrie Hart has built an intensely devoted following of more than half a million viewers. Like her bawdy and bacchanalian show, Hart’s eponymous debut pays tribute to her boozy misadventures with an original cocktail recipe accompanying each hilarious tale. From the “Leaves of Three Martini,” commemorating the hookup to whom she accidentally gave poison ivy, to the “Bizzargarita,” in honor of the time she and a friend were approached by two uber-Republican couples who wanted to “swing” while on vacation in Mexico, You Deserve a Drink is as useful as it is entertaining.

1. Having a bad day? Mamrie’s quick, witty narrative is guaranteed to make everything better.

2. After reading the stories about Topless Tuesday, Tuesday will never be the same again.
3. Get tips on how to pass French, break the ice at a bachelorette party and deal with internet trolls. 

4. Find out how to talk your way out of a ticket, courtesy of Mamrie’s mama. 
5. Your worst travel story is nothing compared to Mamrie’s overnight layover in Malaysia.
6. Each chapter begins with a new cocktail recipe!

7. Missed spring break in college (or want to relive it)? Her spring break tales are hilarious
8. Her focus on the importance of friends reminded me to be grateful for mine.
9. Tip – always check for poison ivy.
10. You deserve a laugh.

5 Stars

Posted October 2, 2015 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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May 28, 2015

Review | Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Title: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Author: Karen Abbott {website}
Publication Date: July 2014
Publisher: Harper
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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.

When I think of women in the Civil War, two different types come to mind: meek and mild, and the Scarlett O’Hara of warriors, using their feminine wiles to do battle with words. I never considered women dressing as men as Emma Edmundson does, blatantly spying as Belle Boyd does, or creating spy rings as Rose Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew did. Abbott’s memoir detailing these women’s drastically different yet fascinating lives opens a new chapter of Civil War history. 

Initially, I couldn’t find Abbott’s rhythm, but her pacing quickly caught me up in the world of the Civil War by the second chapter. I was a little concerned about the amount of history I knew Abbott intended to cover, but she recreated these vibrant women’s personalities so well that I found myself enchanted. Her writing was smooth and engaging, developing each woman’s history so well I felt that I knew them myself.

Each woman had a different impression on me; I found Belle, the stubborn rebel spy, to be mildly irritating, a bit arrogant, and one hundred percent devoted to her Confederate cause. Emma, the woman disguised as a soldier in the Army of the Potomac was a woman trying to find her place in the world. Rose Greenhow used her wiles to subtly spy on the Union, flaunting her Southern roots at each chance she could, but was slowly recovering from the loss of her child. Elizabeth Van Lew put everything on the line – her reputation, her family, her home – to do what was right to her. In short, I fell in love with these women.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a fantastic depiction of the every aspect of the Civil War: Abbott touches on women’s rights, segregation, world perspectives, and honest depictions of battles (the hardest part to read). Abbott’s work is a must read for history buffs and memoir fans, or simply for someone curious about America’s Civil War.

Posted May 28, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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May 14, 2015

Review | All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Title: All Roads Lead to Austen
Author: Amy Elizabeth Smith
Publication Date: June 2012
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Source & Format: Library; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Inspired by Reading Lolita in Tehran, the literary chronicle of a year spent reading Jane Austen throughout Latin America.

All Roads Lead to Austen looked like it would have everything: a great narrator (a lit professor!), a journey through Latin America (a place I know shamefully little about), and of course, Austen. However, I didn’t connect with Smith’s work the way I wanted.

The first round was interesting – listening to the different takes on Austen’s work and how the same themes I perceive are felt in different countries around the world, some with vastly different cultures than what I grew up with. But after the first country, things started to fall apart for me.

It felt like the same thing happened over and over in each country. A struggle to find a group, a discussion about an Austen novel (those became so alike that I started to skim), and the narrator leaving the book meeting acting vaguely dissatisfied. During the middle part of her journey, Smith falls horribly ill, a terrible thing to happen when traveling alone. However, instead of canceling/moving the book groups to a different time when she felt better, she continues with the project, then whines when no one picks up her slack (she doesn’t tell any of those at her club that she’s sick). Even after she heals, she always has a complaint during the book discussions; the one that really got me is when she became irritated when they wanted her perspective. 

After a while All Roads Lead to Austen simply felt repetitive. She missed her boyfriend Diego, wondered if they were really meant to be, talked about the Austen night she hosted at her school, and would throw in random tidbits about the places she visited. The first few times, I found this engaging and character building, but after the third time, I became bored. Eventually, I didn’t want to pick up the book anymore. There was no new insights into Austen and the narration slowly began to grate on my nerves. It was a relief to put this book down. 

Posted May 14, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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February 24, 2015

The Canon’s Top Nine Memoirs

Memoirs are one of my favorite go-to genres. Maybe it’s my nosy nature; I love other people’s stories, especially when they come with a nice cup of hot tea! 

Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica || My favorite of all server memoirs. I fell in love with Dublancia’s blog years ago and it’s been a steady affair ever since. (Tip: try his older stuff in the blog for the juicy restaurant posts.)

Defiant by Alvin Townley || A powerful memoir focusing on American POWs in the Vietnam War. A must read for military and history buffs alike, Townley’s book comes with a warning: this is a hard read, emotionally.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman || Ever wondered what prison would be like? Kerman’s glimpse into the life in a women’s prison is engaging and a little bit scary.

Getting Rooted in New Zealand by Jamie Baywood || We all struggle with finding a place in life, but in New Zealand, it takes on a whole different meaning for Jamie.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson || An American family in Berlin during World War II. The father’s role as U.S. Ambassador to Germany is balancing on the edge of a precipice, and at any moment, the whole family could fall into danger. 

The Year of Living Bibically by A.J. Jacobs || What if we actually lived by the rules of the Bible? All the rules? Jacobs puts it to the test. 

Voyagers of the Titanic by Richard Davenport-Hines || A favorite among Titanic memoirs, Davenport-Hines delves into not only the lives of the passengers, but that of the Titanic’s crew. 

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs || Remember the Encyclopedia Britannica? Jacobs reads it. All of it, from A to Z. 

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky || Tomsky’s work was my first hotel memoir, but I fell in love with his narrative style, dry humor, and balanced wit – all necessary qualities in the customer service world.  

Posted February 24, 2015 by Ellen in top ten tuesday, Uncategorized / 0 Comments

January 24, 2015

My Top Five Memoirs

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell | Julia Child has always intrigued me and when I heard that the movie was based on a book, I couldn’t wait to read it. I loved Julie’s slightly whimsical narration based in reality, her misfit adventures in cooking, and the slow realization as she finds herself.

Yoga Bitch by Susanne Morrison | I love reading others’ yoga memoirs: it’s such a personal, somewhat mystical journey for each individual person that each story is so unique. Morrison’s cover figure, hovering in up dog with a cigarette smoking in her mouth, is an exact replication of the hilarity and wry observational narrative hidden inside the covers. 

Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica | After waiting tables for eight years, restaurant books are some of my favorites. The older Waiter Rant blog posts were my go-to feel goods after a rough day at work. Dublanica’s first memoir opens the world of restaurants to the world and reminds us all…be nice to the waiter. 

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs | Jacob’s work is always one of my favorites – how many people would undertake living by the Bible…verbatim? 

Getting Rooted in New Zealand by Jamie Baywood | One girl’s search to find herself lands her in New Zealand. Baywood’s fantastic diary-style memoir grabbed me from the beginning. It’s so easy for people of all ages and areas of life to identify with Baywood’s search for her place in the world that makes her book a must read. 

Posted January 24, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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January 3, 2015

Review | Slices of Life by Leah Eskin

Title: Slices of Life: A Food Writer Cooks Through Many a Conundrum
Author: Leah Eskin
Publication Date: April 2014
Publisher: Running Press

Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Bad Haircut Kale Chips. Post-ER Roast Chicken. New Baby Risotto. Frantic Dinner-Party Calming Soup. These are some of the dishes that food writer Leah Eskin has turned out during her years of raising two children, enduring one dog, and tending her marriage. She’s also nurtured her ten-year-old food column, “Home on the Range,” providing a recipe and accompanying vignette in the Chicago Tribune every week. Slices of Lifetransforms those columns into a memoir that readers can savor in small or large bites. It’s a compilation of more than 200 recipes, with a generous helping of the life stories that happened along the way: moving-day potatoes, summer-vacation apricot pie, dead-microwave ratatouille, sullen-child oatmeal squares. Whether preparing recipes for disaster or delight, Leah Eskin has made it all delicious! 

There are two things I love: books and food. When these two are combined, I’m a happy camper. Leah Eskin’s book of essays and recipes caught my eye on the library’s new shelf. Food is the spice of life and it’s amazing to see how it fits in other people’s worlds. 

Eskin has a snappy, direct writing style that caught my attention immediately. Her writing is short, to the point, and powerful – good qualities for a longtime columnist with the Chicago Tribune. I loved the narrative voice in her essays. Her personality shone through from the first page. I knew we’d get along great when I read how she became a journalist  – I followed a similar path when picking my degree in college. 

I loved the pairing of recipes and essays – I will rarely see chocolate chip cookies the same way again. Eskin’s collection of essays opened the connection between life, emotion and food in a way I didn’t expect. Sometimes I forget food is more than just, well, food. Food brings people together, soothes, opens doors, brings joy and laughter.

I have two more weeks on my library rental of Slices of Life. After reading Eskin’s essays, I can’t wait to try some of her recipes, to see if I can find that same connection with food again. 

Posted January 3, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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May 19, 2014

Review: Waiting by Debra Ginsberg

Title: Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress
Author: Debra Ginsberg
Publication Date: July 2001
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Source & Format: Library; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

A veteran waitress dishes up a spicy and robust account of life as it really exists behind kitchen doors.

Part memoir, part social commentary, part guide to how to behave when dining out, Debra Ginsberg’s book takes readers on her twentyyear journey as a waitress at a soap-operatic Italian restaurant, an exclusive five-star dining club, the dingiest of diners, and more. While chronicling her evolution as a writer, Ginsberg takes a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant life-revealing that yes, when pushed, a server will spit in food, and, no, that’s not really decaf you’re getting-and how most people in this business are in a constant state of waiting to do something else.

As a worker bee in the food/hospitality industry, I love to read memoirs about the business. When I was researching my review on a previous food book, I found so many good reviews online for Debra Ginsberg’s Waiting that I couldn’t stand it: I had to read it. 

Unfortunately, I fell victim to the GoodReads recommendation; I did not like Ginsberg’s Waiting. The writing was flawless, but occasionally leaning towards boring as Ginsberg wavers away from her stated premise of a memoir of her life’s work and instead begins a commentary on her own life. Plainly, instead of writing about waiting tables, Ginsberg begins to write about simply waiting: waiting for her life to start, waiting to make a change, waiting for heaven knows what. 

While I can identify with her struggle in waiting for her life to begin, I picked up this book to read about her ups and downs as a server, not her life story as she traveled across the country with a guy she didn’t really like or her decision to move from Portland to California. The claim that “a veteran waitress dishes up spicy and robust account of life as it really exists behind kitchen doors” is stretching it…well, quite a bit. More than half of Ginsberg’s work is her personal business, which is fine and dandy, but not the reason I picked up this book. The beginning of the book tells a bit of her ‘confessions’, but quickly her memoirs move into her struggle in becoming a writer – again, a story I can identify with, but not the one I picked up this book for. 

As I researched Ms. Ginsberg this morning, I realized that Waiting is, in fact, her launching pad for her memoirs in general. The book ends in a sort of limbo, with Ginsberg beginning a new life for herself and appears to continue in her next books. If you were interested in reading how a woman transition from a server to a writer, Ginsberg’s books are right up your alley. Unfortunately, for me, I was looking for a guilty-pleasure book along the lines of Dublancia’s Waiter Rant to sink into after a hard day of waiting. 

Posted May 19, 2014 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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May 2, 2014

Review | Defiant by Alvin Townley

Title: Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought For Them, and the One Who Never Returned

Author: Alvin Townley
Publication Date: February 2014
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source & Format: Publisher; hardcover
During the Vietnam War, hundreds of American prisoners-of-war faced years of brutal conditions and horrific torture at the hands of North Vietnamese guards and interrogators who ruthlessly plied them for military intelligence and propaganda. Determined to maintain their Code of Conduct, the POWs developed a powerful underground resistance. To quash it, their captors singled out its eleven leaders, Vietnam’s own “dirty dozen,” and banished them to an isolated jail that would become known as Alcatraz. None would leave its solitary cells and interrogation rooms unscathed; one would never return.

As these eleven men suffered in Hanoi, their wives at home launched an extraordinary campaign that would ultimately spark the nationwide POW/MIA movement. The members of these military families banded together and showed the courage not only to endure years of doubt about the fate of their husbands and fathers, but to bravely fight for their safe return. When the survivors of Alcatraz finally came home, one veteran would go on to receive the Medal of Honor, another would become a U.S. Senator, and a third still serves in the U.S. Congress.

A powerful story of survival and triumph, Alvin Townley’s Defiant will inspire anyone wondering how courage, faith, and brotherhood can endure even in the darkest of situations.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated for this review, nor has it in any way influenced my opinion. Promise!


In high school history classes, we were taught the basics of the Vietnam war. Defiant blows those lessons out of the water. 

Each soldier whose bracelet appears on the cover of the book plays a major role in the underground resistance the POWs employed to survive during their captivity. Townley makes these men memorable in his book by telling us their story: their journey to aviation (my personal favorite), their love lives, and their devotion to their country. It is rare to find such compassionate narration of nonfictional characters in a story, but Townley’s words make these men forever a part of my consciousness. His effort to paint an entire picture of each man makes each’s struggle through the POW captivity more poignant. 

Before deploying to Vietnam, each soldier learned a Code of Conduct, one that dictated how they react to their situation. I had never heard of this particular code before, so reading how it essentially shaped their lives was at once extraordinary and touching. They used the simple six guidelines to keep their spirits buoyed and their resistance strong. The strength of their camaraderie and support for each other touched me the most; fair warning, it’s impossible to get through this book without a serious case of the feels. 


The narration of Defiant was simple and direct; Townley addresses tough topics with a simplicity that underscores the emotions felt by these men, their families, friends and their countries. His simple diction and clarification of topics unfamiliar to non-military or history buffs make reading his book easy and are necessary for reading the harder scenes. 

The narration encompasses not only the POWs, but their families, friends and the world at large. This wide scope provides context and a basis for emotional reactions, but it doesn’t overcome the story of the men in captivity. Townley represents each man equally in the narration, setting up their personal stories before delving into the heart of the book. 

A warning to the soft-hearted folks (like me): Townley leaves no information out, and consequently, the torture scenes might be hard to read. I admire him for including everything; it accurately portrays the struggle of these men. 


Defiant is a must for military history buffs and nonfiction lovers. I would even go so far as to say that this book is a necessary read for us in order to fully understand what happened to these men. My worldview has changed drastically simply from this read. 

Posted May 2, 2014 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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