A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

This is an intriguing account of two nations on the precipice: China and the United States.

It’s 1949 and China, ruled by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, is losing ground to Mao Zedong and the Communists. And Truman weighs his options.

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The United States’ response, or lack of it, goes a long way to establishing the future of the Asian continent, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, future Communist uprisings in Southeast Asia and the eventual mires of Korea and Vietnam.

It’s story of an administration missing its moment and paying dearly for it.

Among the most interesting parts of this book are the interpersonal relationships, none more intriguing than between Madame Chiang and the U.S. public. She was an exotic, well-spoken, glamourous character, pleading her case for American help, while sending notes back home to the Generalissimo, attempting to keep him in line and his spirits up.

The legacy of this time continues to be felt, and in this is a cautionary tale of what happens when an administration is unprepared for the changing world.

I received this book from Blogging For Books.

Christmas: A Biography

This is a fun look at the history of the celebration of Christmas, and the way people have wrestled with it, both as sacred observance and secular festival, since it became a holiday.

There are many books like this out there, going item by item, how Christmas trees came about, or Christmas cards, etc. But this book presents this information as a developing chronological story, which makes it more interesting and real than just a book of lists.

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The first recorded Christmases were in the 300s, and it wasn’t long before there was head-shaking at how secular it had become, and how it was better in “the old days.” Those seem to be the constants in Christmas: the semi-permanent “war on Christmas” and the misty-eyed remembrances of bygone celebrations.

This book also knocks down some myths, such as the Dutch origin of Santa Claus (he seems to have been a Swiss concoction, actually) and that Coca-Cola didn’t imagine his current look (that was the creation, of course, of political cartoonist Thomas Nast). Also in the story are popular books, music and movies ­– special emphasis on “It’s A Wonderful Life” as the first modern Christmas fairy tale, after “A Christmas Carol.”

The development of Christmas from a public to a private celebration, from elite to the masses, from adult to child, is detailed, along with fun bits of knowledge.

A Few Planes for China: The Birth of the Flying Tigers

What a disappointing book.

I hesitate to say “boring,” but I don’t know any other word to use.

To be sure, this author’s take on the birth of the Flying Tiger program is a challenge to the orthodoxy. She says the oft-told tale that Claire Chennault and the U.S. were the driving forces behind the establishment of the program is not true, but that Winston Churchill was instead.

That may be, and I’ll let others wrestle with her assertion (save one comment below). But the tale, as told here, is really a drag.

The author sources a couple of autobiographies plus reams and reams of recently-found documents. And she uses them, seemingly page by page, for the account. But it goes too deep for me.

For instance, did you want to know the serial numbers of the airplanes built in the U.S. and delivered to Britain and then China? Well you have them here. Want to know the dates that memos were sent and then commented on with hand-written notes? You’ve got them here.

What’s missing is interviews – and I realize that many, if not most, of the players are gone now, but maybe other experts could be brought in to give us real quotes. But since the story challenges history, I imagine there are few historians who would agree with her central thesis.

Here is another fact to weigh with this account: The author’s great-grandfather is now portrayed as having an “early and crucial” role in the creation of the Flying Tigers. Take that for what it’s worth.

I want to read about the squadron and its history, but instead we get a deep account of the government red tape surrounding it.

Others gave this book a higher rating than I did. That’s fine by me.

I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviews program.