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Best 2019 Books of Historical Excavation

A sturdy, swift-moving contribution to the popular literature of the American Revolution.

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The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian shifts his focus from modern battlefields to the conflict that founded the United States.

Atkinson (The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, 2013, etc.) is a longtime master of the set piece: Soldiers move into place, usually not quite understanding why, and are put into motion against each other to bloody result. He doesn’t disappoint here, in the first of a promised trilogy on the Revolutionary War. As he writes of the Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance, “Charlestown burned and burned, painting the low clouds bright orange in what one diarist called ‘a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin,’ ” even as snipers fired away and soldiers lay moaning in heaps on the ground. At Lexington, British officers were spun in circles by well-landed shots while American prisoners such as Ethan Allen languished in British camps and spies for both sides moved uneasily from line to line. There’s plenty of motion and carnage to keep the reader’s attention. Yet Atkinson also has a good command of the big-picture issues that sparked the revolt and fed its fire, from King George’s disdain of disorder to the hated effects of the Coercive Acts. As he writes, the Stamp Act was, among other things, an attempt to get American colonists to pay their fair share for the costs of their imperial defense (“a typical American…paid no more than sixpence a year in Crown taxes, compared to the average Englishman’s twenty-five shillings”). Despite a succession of early disasters and defeats, Atkinson clearly demonstrates, through revealing portraits of the commanders on both sides, how the colonials “outgeneraled” the British, whose army was generally understaffed and plagued by illness, desertion, and disaffection, even if “the American army had not been proficient in any general sense.” A bonus: Readers learn what it was that Paul Revere really hollered on his famed ride.

A sturdy, swift-moving contribution to the popular literature of the American Revolution.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62779-043-7

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

A thorough, exciting, and altogether excellent choice for World War II—and especially D-Day—aficionados.



This massive nuts-and-bolts account corrects many of the inaccuracies surrounding the vaunted Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

British historian Caddick-Adams (Military History/Defence Academy of the U.K.; Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45, 2014, etc.), a major in the British Territorial Army, offers an impressive summary of the sheer materiel and human effort required in securing the Normandy beachhead, from years of preparation to excruciating execution. Examining Gen. Erwin Rommel’s reinforcement of the so-called Atlantikwall, which was supposedly impenetrable, the author underscores some faulty suppositions—e.g., that German soldiers were “supermen” when in fact they were aged, exhausted, and relying heavily on horses for mobility. The American presence in Britain dazzled the local population, while the black American troops were treated with markedly more respect and warmth by the British locals than they were used to back home, prompting one veteran to recall, “our biggest enemy was our own troops.” Caddick-Adams, an expert in this terrain, devotes considerable space to the months of training that the invasion required and the many lives that were lost in run-up accidents; the prickly personalities of the various leading generals; the reliance on the sketchy weather reports; the nerve-wracking decision to delay the invasion 24 hours due to unpromising sea conditions; and how the Germans, who of course knew an invasion was coming at some point, had essentially “applied different criteria for a successful invasion” than the Allies. Following the armada toward Normandy, the author explains the roles of airpower, minesweepers, and assault flotillas and chronicles how, beach by beach, the Allies made their valiant, perilous forward thrust. In an intriguing postscript, he examines the crucial role of the spy network in “inducing Hitler to order a series of mistaken moves based on false intelligence.” There is also a glossary, rank table, and a list of the orders of battles.

A thorough, exciting, and altogether excellent choice for World War II—and especially D-Day—aficionados.

Pub Date: May 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-19-060189-8

Page Count: 928

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

A great read for any book lover.



The surprising journey of a special book.

Davis (Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation, 2008, etc.) follows the remarkable tale of “Number 45,” one of the finest copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence. The author focuses the narrative on the life of book collector Estelle Doheny, whose oil-tycoon husband was at the center of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. In 1950, she purchased the Gutenberg as the crowning achievement of her life as a collector and as a devout Catholic. Doheny’s various attempts to purchase a Gutenberg, and the dealers, scholars, and members of her household who took part in the quest, make for engrossing reading. However, the story of Number 45 is far deeper and richer, beginning with the unsurpassed skill and ingenuity of Gutenberg himself. This particular copy went on to be owned by three intriguing modern owners before Doheny. Through the stories of these three wealthy men, the author explores the significance of rare book collecting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collectors themselves all have interesting backgrounds, as well—e.g., Charles William Dyson Perrins, heir to the Lea & Perrins worcestershire sauce fortune as well as a once-famed porcelain dynasty. After Doheny’s death, Number 45 was used in scientific experiments to determine the components of Gutenberg’s inks. She had left the Bible—and the entirety of her rare-book and art collection—in the care of a Catholic seminary, but church authorities decided to sell everything in the late 1980s, and Number 45 changed hands yet again, landing at a Japanese firm for a record $5.4 million. Davis does a fine job telling a fascinating story that touches on the origin of books, the passion of collectors, the unseen world of rare-book dealers, and the lives of the super-rich, past and present.

A great read for any book lover.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59240-867-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: TarcherPerigee

Review Posted Online: Dec. 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

A powerful and essential addition to our understanding of European history and culture.



A prodigiously researched account of the spread of culture throughout the mid and late 19th century using three specific biographies to personalize the voluminous historical data.

Figes (History/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, 2014, etc.) returns with another astonishing work displaying his vast knowledge of art, music, literature, culture, and history. Wisely, he uses three people to embody much of his discussion: Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, French singer Pauline Viardot, and her husband, Louis, a political activist and literary figure. The author follows these three over the decades—Turgenev and Pauline had an intimate relationship that Louis tolerated—and through their stories, we see specific instances of the cultural changes Figes illuminates throughout the book. The growth of railways, the advances in photography and publication, the explosion in literary translations, the vast increase in literacy—these and other factors increased the development of a kind of common European culture that only the growth of nationalism, and the consequent wars, could weaken. “The arts played a central role in this evolving concept of a European cultural identity,” writes Figes. “More than religion or political beliefs, they were seen as uniting people across the Continent.” This necessitated the “recognition that any national culture is a result of a constant dialogue across state boundaries and of the assimilation of separate artistic traditions into a larger European world.” Turgenev and the Viardots traveled continually: She was a popular singer, and, initially, it was her financial success that supported her family. Later, her voice gone, it was Turgenev’s writing and generosity. In many ways, the text is a who’s who of the time period. Liszt, Dickens, Balzac, Hugo, George Sand, Chopin, Tolstoy, Flaubert—these and countless other icons move smoothly through the narrative, a rich mélange of tasty ingredients. There are some mild surprises, too: Mary Shelley briefly wanders in (we read Victor Frankenstein’s description of the Rhine), and Henry James makes some cameos.

A powerful and essential addition to our understanding of European history and culture.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62779-214-1

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A riveting Civil War history giving politics and combat equal attention.



An engrossing history of the final gasps of the Civil War, a year in which “Americans mourned their fathers and brothers and sons but also the way their lives used to be, the people they used to be, the innocence they had lost.”

Journalist and historian Gwynne (The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, 2016, etc.) begins in May 1864 with the Confederacy shrunken and impoverished but with no intention of surrendering. Aware that their armies were outmatched, Southern leaders kept their spirits up with a fantasy. If they could hold out until the November election, they believed, Lincoln would lose, and a Democratic administration would end the war, leaving the Confederacy intact. This was not entirely unreasonable. The July 1863 triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were ancient history. War weariness was common; Lincoln himself believed he would lose the election, and Northern media poured out invective. Everyone had high hopes when Ulysses Grant took command in March. Gwynne emphasizes that his strategy—unrelenting attacks on all fronts—was a war winner, but initial results were discouraging. Sherman stalled in front of Atlanta, and Grant couldn’t defeat Lee, although, unlike previous generals, he kept trying. As the author writes, by “the summer of 1864 the North was bitterly divided, heartily sick of the war, and headed into an election that would give full voice to all of that smoldering dissent.” Then, as fall approached, matters improved. Atlanta fell, Philip Sheridan eliminated the persistent threat to Washington in the Shenandoah Valley, rival candidates self-destructed, and Lincoln won reelection in a landslide. Five months of war remained, but the Union won all the battles. A consummate researcher, Gwynne has done his homework and is not shy with opinions. He especially admires Sherman, a mediocre general but an insightful thinker who taught that war had no positive value; it was misery pure and simple. He also punctures persistent myths, especially that of the great Appomattox reconciliation. Lee, Grant, and a few generals shook hands, but Union forces celebrated wildly, and Confederates fumed and stormed off.

A riveting Civil War history giving politics and combat equal attention.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1622-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

As good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionados.



Austin-based novelist Harrigan (A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, 2016, etc.) serves up a lively history of the nation-sized Lone Star State.

The title comes from the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who marveled at Texas but wound up making her fortune in next-door New Mexico. Of course, Texas has many next-door neighbors, each influencing it and being influenced by it: the plains of Oklahoma, the bayous and deep forests of Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico itself, all where South and West and Midwest meet. Telling its story is a daunting task: If the project of the gigantic centennial Big Tex statue with which Harrigan opens his story was to “Texanize Texans,” it was one in which women, ethnic minorities, the poor, and many other sorts of people were forgotten in the face of stalwarts like Sam Houston, Judge Roy Bean, and Davy Crockett. Not here. The standbys figure, but in interesting lights: Houston was famous and even infamous in his day, but his successor, Mirabeau Lamar, mostly known only for the Austin avenue named for him, was just as much a man of parts, “a poet and classical scholar with a bucolic vision of the empire that his administration aimed to wrest from the hands of its enemies.” Harrigan’s story of the Alamo is also nuanced: It is not true that there were no survivors, but the fact that the survivors were slaves has rendered them invisible—as is the fact that many Mexican officers who served under Santa Anna pleaded with him to show mercy to the rest. The Alamo has given a Texas flair to all sorts of things, including a recent golf tournament, highlighting Texans’ tendency toward "a blend of valor and swagger.” Just so, Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed.

As good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionados.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-292-75951-0

Page Count: 944

Publisher: Univ. of Texas

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

A marvelous journey brimming with adventure and poetry and narrated by a keen, compassionate observer.



An engaging history of the Arab world by a Yemen-based Westerner thoroughly versed in Arabic.

One clarifying theme runs throughout this extensive, illuminating narrative of the Arab people from ancient to modern times: language. Long before the writing of the Quran, the language that “evolved on the tongues of tribal soothsayers and poets…has long, perhaps always, been the catalyst of a larger Arab identity.” Arabist and translator Mackintosh-Smith (Yemen: The Unknown Arabia, 2014, etc.), a senior fellow at the Library of Arabic Literature who has lived in the Arab world for 35 years, structures his study around “three waves of unity” in Arab history that originated from the “momentum of ’arabbiyyah, the high language par excellence.” These included the slow, ancient tribal agitation of self-awareness; the “tsunami” of conquest inspired by Muhammad’s Quranic recitations; and the 19th-century nationalism awakened by Napoleon’s conquest. “That last wave,” writes the author, “is still breaking now.” Throughout this impressive book, Mackintosh-Smith grapples with coexisting “rationalities” of Arab history: the “settled” society, or the civil polity where people lived together in a town; and the Bedouin or nomadic tradition. The rugged, dry terrain and lack of fresh water kept the people of the Arabian subcontinent in perpetual mobility (another theme) and imparted the masterful pairing of two beasts of burden—the camel and horse—that enabled the Arabs’ transformation from “plodding hauliers into dashing warriors.” The author demonstrates the power of rhetoric by the orator-leaders who “gathered the word”—of the people, recorded battles, etc.—even before Muhammad channeled that energy in disciplined Quranic teaching and embarked on his state-building years in Medina. Over the course of an extensive, consistently fascinating history, Mackintosh-Smith expertly picks and chooses his details and analyses, providing an admirably complete picture of a consistently misunderstood part of world history and culture. In addition to illustrations and maps, the author includes a useful chronology delineating both “events” and elements of “language, culture, society, identity.”

A marvelous journey brimming with adventure and poetry and narrated by a keen, compassionate observer.

Pub Date: May 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-300-18028-2

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

An eye-opening, vital reexamination of America’s founding myth.



An impassioned, deeply knowledgeable history of the “first contacts” between the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and the English and Europeans, this time told from the Native side.

A scholar of Native American, Colonial, and racial history in America, Silverman (History/George Washington Univ.; Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, 2016, etc.) first orients readers toward what the landing Pilgrim scouts at Cape Cod in November 1620 would have actually seen in the environs: evidence of an undeniable Native civilization. As the author shows, the Wampanoag Indians had already adopted horticulture (maize, beans, squash); created a system of governance via individual sachems (chiefs), inherited through the male line; and established proprietorship of the land stretching back generations. Moreover, there had already been a history of violence between the Natives and the shipboard European explorers for at least 100 years, as the explorers often lured the Natives into unfair trade, which often led to violence, and spread fatal diseases that decimated their population. “The ease of some of the Wampanoags with the English,” writes the author, “suggests that there had been other more recent contacts than surviving documents report. At Martha’s Vineyard, thirteen armed men approached the Concord without any fear, as if they had experience with such situations.” Throughout this well-documented, unique history, Silverman offers a detailed look at the long, tortured relations between the two and captures the palpable sense of overall mourning after the aftermath of King Philip’s War and the attempt to annihilate (and assimilate) the Wampanoags—and their incredible ability to transcend the dehumanization and prevail. Ultimately, the author provides an important, heart-rending story of the treachery of alliances and the individuals caught in the crosshairs, a powerful history that clearly “exposes the Thanksgiving myth as a myth rather than history.” Silverman also includes a helpful “Glossary of Key Indian People and Places.”

An eye-opening, vital reexamination of America’s founding myth.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63286-924-1

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Sept. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

A masterful multigenerational reconstruction of a family’s life.



The experiences of a Sephardic family reveal tumultuous Jewish history.

Drawing on rich archives that yielded thousands of letters, telegrams, photographs, and legal and medical documents, two-time National Jewish Book Award winner Stein (History and Jewish Studies/UCLA; Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century, 2016, etc.) offers a fascinating history of the Levy family, Sephardic Jews descended from Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, an influential publisher in 19th-century Salonica. The author’s incomparable sources, which include Sa’adi’s memoir (edited by Stein for publication in 2012), afforded her an intimate look at the challenges, quarrels, loves, and rivalries that beset Sa’adi and his wives, children, grandchildren, and their descendants as they experienced cataclysmic world events. Organized chronologically, each chapter focuses on a family member to explore their choices and opportunities in a changing world. Of Sa’adi’s 14 children, one daughter became a teacher; one son followed in his father’s footsteps as a newspaperman; another became a high-ranking official for the Jewish Community of Salonica. Yet another son, a gifted linguist and mathematician who rejected a teaching career in favor of law, rose to considerable stature as the Jewish Community’s “director of communal real estate,” a position that carried significant “legal, social, and economic authority.” Four emigrated to Sephardic communities abroad. Generations of the Levy family were caught in the maelstrom of wars. The First Balkan War, which obstructed daily life, led to the Ottomans’ loss of Salonica to Greece, an upheaval that the Levys saw as calamitous because it gave Greek Orthodox Christians preference to Jews. After World War I, a massive influx of Greeks reduced the once-prominent Jewish population to “a mere fifth” of the city’s residents. In 1943, Nazi persecution intensified in Salonica, and Stein uncovers harrowing evidence of one great-grandson of Sa’adi who became a Nazi henchman, for which he was executed. By the end of World War II, of 37 family members deported from France and Greece, only one survived. Still, the Levys endure, scattered throughout the world.

A masterful multigenerational reconstruction of a family’s life.

Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-18542-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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