Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Summer Reading Recommendations

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”

W. Somerset Maugham

Summertime. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but these lazy days call for the simple pleasures of books. (Though I regret, for many adults in our time, “lazy days” never really exist in any season...). We take books with us on vacation, to read in the car, at the beach, or whenever we find a moment to kick back and relax. We subject our children to local public libraries and their summer reading programs. We hope, often in vain, they’ll pick up some titles from the suggested summer reading lists sent home at the end of the school year (though I’ve not seen one since the “Before Times” prior to the covid pandemic). Do kids still read books over the summer? Is summer reading still a thing in a culture increasingly focused on its cell phones and other electronic devices? (A discussion for another time, perhaps.) In musing on the fleeting joys of summer reading, I thought I might make a few recommendations for titles which reflect my own interests in history and gaming; books I’ve read in the past Hobby Games Recce readers might also enjoy.

I am a voracious reader — and I still don’t think I read enough — but I rarely take time to relax, kick back for an afternoon, and immerse myself in a book beyond my habitual exercise, lunch hour, or bedtime reading (like most folks, I barely have time to relax). I think the last time I took time off to just recline in a lawn chair with a good book was 1998, shortly after West End Games laid off thestaff and filed for bankruptcy; in my dazed state of betrayal and sudden unemployment, I spent a week at my parents’ house, trying to relax on their back deck in the summer sunshine, reading Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich cover to cover. Perhaps I’ve indulged in some extended leisure reading since then, though nothing makes enough impression on my memory at the moment.

Most of the books I’ve enjoyed over the years appeal to my interests in gaming and history, science fiction and fantasy literature...though I’ve tried a few periods and genres that just didn’t take. In the past I’ve touched on works of fiction that entertained me, often repeatedly, in “Summer Re-Reading,” mentioned volumes about the adventure gaming hobby in “Non-Fiction Books about Gaming,” and discussed the role books have played throughout my life in “The Inspiration of Books” (all of which contain mostly worthy recommendations of their own).

I’m limiting this summer reading list to non-fiction titles, primarily history or history of wargaming; goodness knows my list of fiction could easily fill another blog entry, perhaps later in the year as suggestions for yuletide gift giving. But for now, here are some of my favorite, most satisfying non-fiction authors and titles:

Simon Parkin, A Game of Birds and Wolves. What started as a presentation for a wargaming conference in London turned into a book about how Womens Royal Navy Service (WRNS or Wrens) personnel worked at Western Approaches in Liverpool during World War II to wargame convoy engagements against u-boats...both to develop tactics against them and to train escort captains. An offshoot Western Approaches’ mission to coordinate and track convoys around the German u-boat menace in the Battle of the Atlantic, the program relied on Wrens to help develop, administer, and run training games (serving not only as referees but also playing as u-boat captains). The game proved a “safe-to-fail” space where escort captains could learn from their mistakes, without risking or losing sailors’ lives. An enlightening story highlighting women’s contributions to Allied victory in WW II through the use of a training wargame (the rules of which I patiently wait for from John Curry’s History of Wargaming Project...).

Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Krystyna Skarbek fled her homeland and offered to serve Britain as a spy. As Christine Granville she volunteered to undertake intelligence operations in the field; she later joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) carrying out daring and dangerous espionage work in France. The book follows her travels and her love life from Poland to England, into Hungary, across the Middle East to Egypt, and finally into Vichy France, detailing her struggles to work toward Allied victory not behind a desk, but at great risk behind enemy lines. Granville’s story illustrates to me what I call the “Tragedy of Poland.” How its people endured invasion by Nazis and Soviets, suffered the terror of the death camps, endured the brutal suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, struggled in foreign lands to aid the Allies, often under suspicion and risking their lives, and then, after the Allies attained victory, had nowhere to return but a nation under the ruthless domination of Soviet Russia. (I also highly recommend Mulley’s The Women Who Flew for Hitler, examining the very different lives and ambitions of Hanna Reitsch and lesser known Melitta von Stauffenberg.)

Both titles above belong to a genre of history books devoted to exploring women’s perspectives during WWII. These stories — often overlooked (or classified) in the past, help us vicariously experience the challenges they faced, the service they gave, and often the sacrifices they made. Exploring different perspectives helps us expand our knowledge and appreciation of both familiar and new topics, an essential element of having a well-rounded outlook on the past, present, and future.

Scott C. Patchan, George Washington in the French & Indian War. This relatively brief (200 pages) book takes a close look at the founding father’s service during this prelude to the American Revolution. As a young plantation owner and member of Virginia’s gentry, the 21 year-old Washington started his military career with ambitions to become a British officer. The book follows him on his 1753 mission into French territory for Governor Dinwiddie, the 1754 raid on a French reconnaissance party and the subsequent disastrous action at Fort Necessity, the ambush of General Bradstreet’s expedition on the Monongahela River, and subsequent actions during the war itself in Pennsylvania. The narrative draws heavily on Washington’s own accounts and other contemporary records and includes numerous illustrations to bring the period to life. I picked this up in April during a visit to Fort Ligonier and Fort Necessity. It’s an interesting overview of Washington’s early, rough military career and his often impetuous, opinionated views; no doubt he learned from his many setbacks in this campaign before leading America’s rebellious Continental Army against the British years later.

Paul Lockhart, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge. This account focuses on Baron Steuben’s work training the Continental Army, imposing order and regulations for greater efficiency on the battlefield, and his few actions commanding troops in the field, notably at Morristown and during the Virginia campaign of 1781. Steuben was an older officer who’d seen service in Europe, but struggled with constant debt, questions about his dubious past, thankless assignments, and the political frictions of government of united American colonies. It presents an interesting juxtaposition of American attitudes and the baron’s Prussian sensibilities (and a volatile personality), with the foreigner’s discerning views of an independent-minded society.

Both the above-mentioned books offer perspectives on many issues challenging America as a colonial and independent society, one from our foremost founding father in his youth and the other from the perspective of a European working within the conflicted early American political landscape. The more I read books about America’s early history — formative years that offer insights into core American traits — the more I come to understand how past attitudes inform our current American society...for good and for ill.

Francis J. McHugh,
U.S. Navy Fundamentals of War Gaming. Although it might seem like some stuffy academic textbook, McHugh’s guide distills many aspects of wargaming into an accessible book. He offers an introduction to the many elements of wargames as used by the U.S. Navy, as well as a clear history of wargames as used by military forces in the past. His chapters on rules dives into the art of matching simulation procedures with the purpose of an exercise (as an education and training tool or as a means of analyzing new techniques and ordnance). I admit I skimmed the later chapters on computer simuations, but focused primarily on “manual games.” In most areas he explores numerous options for simulating battlefield experiences as game exercises. My copy contains numerous dog-eared pages with penciled notes; I rank it with my other essential, go-to professional military wargame references, Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming and Matthew B. Caffrey, Jr.’s On Wargaming.

Despite my lack of summer leisure time, I have a healthy “to read” pile on hand...and plenty of books on my Bookshop.org and Amazon wish lists awaiting my attentions. The top of my reading pile includes Colin G. Calloway’s The Indian World of George Washington (for more early American history), John Curry’s edited volume of Wargames from World War II, a pair of books from ironclads historian John V. Quarstein about the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, and Matthew F. Delmont’s Half American. My wish lists have a few books on the Polish involvement in cracking the enigma machine in WWII and women’s contributions to Allied victory, a few books about issues in gaming, Peter Caddick-Adams’ Snow & Steel: Battle of the Bulge 1944-45, and various Osprey books on military history relevant to my interests. Alas, I will have to wait until December to read Clare Mulley’s latest biography of daring women in WWII, Agent Zo, when it releases in America.

I hope where ever you travel this summer, you have a book in hand or standing nearby at the ready. These suggestions obviously reflect my own interests and tastes; go out and read ones that speak to yours.

 “We are like books. Most people only see our cover, the minority read only the introduction, many people believe the critics. Few will know our content.”

Emile Zola


  1. Perfect timing! I'm about to finish a book and nothing on my "to read" list was catching my interests. There's several titles here that look compelling - particularly those first two.

    1. Glad you found something interesting among my very narrowly focused history titles. With the exception of the last one, they all present engaging stories on personal levels against the backdrop of more sweeping historical events. Enjoy!


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