Book List

Best History Books of 2014

An excellent contribution to the truth telling of the American Indian story.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD

A HISTORY OF THE MANDAN PEOPLE

A nonpolemical, engaging study of a once-thriving Indian nation of the American heartland whose origins and demise tell us much about ourselves.

Along the Missouri River in North Dakota, the Mandan people flourished in the warming period between ice ages, circa A.D. 1000, drawn to the alluvial richness of the river as well as the bison hunting ranges of the Western grasslands. In her thorough mosaic of Mandan history and culture, Fenn (Western American History/Univ. of Colorado; Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82, 2001, etc.) writes that these were an immensely adaptable people, migrating upstream when weather patterns changed, mastering the cultivation of corn and other edibles and the art of trade, often in competition with other horticulturalist tribes nearby, like the Arikara and Lakota. Elaborate Mandan defense fortifications indicated a vulnerability to attack, perhaps by the fierce, nomadic Sioux. Mandan homes were sturdy and numerous, solid earthen lodges built by the women, who also cultivated the fields, dried the meat and tanned the hides, revealing a strong maternal society where the husbands and the children were shared by sisters in one house due to the scarcity of men, perhaps due to mortality from war and hunting. At the time of the Spanish conquistadors, Fenn estimates there were 12,000 Mandans in the upper Missouri River; it was “teeming with people.” Gradually, contact with outsiders beginning in the 17th century and continuing with the famous interaction with Louis and Clark’s expedition up the Missouri in 1804 led to Mandan decimation by disease as well as by the Norwegian rat, which devoured their corn stored in cache pits. In addition to her comprehensive narrative, Fenn intersperses throughout the narrative many helpful maps and poignant drawings by George Catlin and others.

An excellent contribution to the truth telling of the American Indian story.

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8090-4239-5

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2014

A fast-paced, riveting account of exploration and settlement, suffering and survival, treachery and death.

ASTORIA

ASTOR AND JEFFERSON'S LOST PACIFIC EMPIRE: A STORY OF WEALTH, AMBITION, AND SURVIVAL

A correspondent for Outside recovers a remarkable piece of history: the story of America’s first colony on the continent’s West coast.

Beginning in 1810, John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) set in motion an audacious plan to create “the largest commercial enterprise the world has ever known.” He planned to control North America’s entire fur trade by establishing a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, the lynchpin of a network extending west to the Pacific Rim and east to Europe. President Thomas Jefferson encouraged the venture, envisioning Astor’s proposed settlement as the beginning of a “sister democracy” to the United States. From his base in Manhattan, Astor launched a two-pronged expedition: an Overland Party that carved a path later known as the Oregon Trail and a Sea-Going Party that sailed around Cape Horn to the coastal region west of the Rockies. Stark (The Last Empty Places: A Past and Present Journey through the Blank Spots on the American Map, 2010, etc.) spins the tale of these arduous journeys, the founding of Astoria and the outpost’s abandonment during the War of 1812. He focuses on the tyrannical sea captain, the beleaguered, consensus-seeking businessman, and the shady, self-important fur trader who headed the parties and the French voyageurs, Yankee seamen, and Scottish woodsmen they commanded, as well as the Native American tribes they encountered. If the character of Astor remains indistinct, not so the horrors faced by the Astorians. Their various ordeals give Stark the chance to comment on cold water immersion and hypothermia, the efficacy of pounded, dried wild cherries in combating scurvy, and the intriguing role of what we would today call PTSD in the early exploration of North America. Near the end of his life, Astor employed Washington Irving to tell the astonishing story of Astoria. With Stark, this almost unbelievable tale remains in expert hands.

A fast-paced, riveting account of exploration and settlement, suffering and survival, treachery and death.

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-221829-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2014

A disturbing, transformative text that veers toward essential reading.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

Google Rating

  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

WAR! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

CONFLICT AND THE PROGRESS OF CIVILIZATION FROM PRIMATES TO ROBOTS

A profoundly uncomfortable but provocative argument that “productive war” promotes greater safety, a decrease in violence and economic growth.

Morris (Classics and History/ Stanford Univ.; Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, 2010, etc.) begins with an account of a near nuclear disaster in 1983 and then proceeds with his thesis that “war has made the world safer.” He recognizes—and alludes continually to—the unpleasantness of his position but charges ahead into the valley of death. He uses the example of ancient Rome—its violent conquests ensured subsequent safety and improved lives for the survivors—then gives us a tour through world history, focusing on such things as the development of weapons and defenses. We learn why chariot fighting rose and fell, the problems of using elephants in battle, the significance of the horse, and the importance of gunpowder and ships, and we get some grim details—e.g., the use of the flaming fat of victims as an early Molotov cocktail. Drawing on the work of Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker and myriads of others, Morris relentlessly develops his thesis, which never decreases in discomfort, though it does become more convincing. Near the end, the author examines evolutionary biology and the balance between violence and cooperation in our rise from what he calls “globs” to the complicated creatures that we now are. Emerging also is his concept of the “globocop”—a country so powerful that it can police the world (to a point) and eventually move us toward “Denmark,” his metaphor for a peaceful, productive place. The author does a bit of crystal-balling at the end. Will there be robo-wars? Will the United States eventually tumble?

A disturbing, transformative text that veers toward essential reading.

Pub Date: April 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-28600-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2014

Instructive, yes, but also as engrossing as good detective fiction.

DARK INVASION

1915: GERMANY'S SECRET WAR AGAINST AMERICA

Terrifically engaging and pertinent tale of the New York City bomb squad that foiled German terrorist plots against the United States at the outbreak of World War I.

Vanity Fair contributor Blum (The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, 2011, etc.) masterly retrieves this largely forgotten, haunting history of Germany’s subversive attempts to halt the U.S. ability to send munitions to the Allies fighting against it in Europe. The author pursues the key players in an episodic narrative: the agents of the Kaiser’s secret intelligence service, the Abteilung IIIB, with commander Walter Nicolai extending its tentacles across the Atlantic to fund a campaign of shipping terror amid the New York and New Jersey docks; the members of the New York Police Bomb and Neutrality Squad, led by the enterprising Capt. Tom Tunney, who had lately infiltrated the anarchist Brescia Circle and diverted its attempt to bomb St. Patrick’s Cathedral; and the strange and troubled Ivy League literature professor Erich Muenter, who went underground after poisoning his wife in 1906 and emerged as terrorist Frank Holt in 1915. The audacity of the German operatives, who received easy support from the plethora of German immigrants to America—e.g., the Hamburg-America Line officer Paul Koenig, who policed the shipyards in his thuggish way (“a thick-bodied, bull-necked man with long, drooping arms and iron fists that could seem as hell-bent as a runaway trolley car when they were pounding away at your skull”) was matched by the ingenuity of Tunney, who had a nose for the right clue and method of infiltration. Blum creates some memorable portraits, accompanied by a lively gallery of photos, and keeps the heroic good-versus-evil plot simmering along in a nicely calibrated work of popular narrative history.

Instructive, yes, but also as engrossing as good detective fiction.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-230755-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

A scholarly enough social history but one with plenty of sex appeal.

SUPREME CITY

HOW JAZZ AGE MANHATTAN GAVE BIRTH TO MODERN AMERICA

An award-winning historian surveys the astonishing cast of characters who helped turn Manhattan into the world capital of commerce, communication and entertainment.

Except for occasional geographic detours to Harlem for the Cotton Club or the Bronx for Yankee Stadium, and a couple of temporal departures that highlight, for example, the completion of Grand Central Terminal or the opening of the George Washington Bridge, Miller (History/Lafayette Coll.; Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, 2006, etc.) confines his story to Midtown Manhattan and the 1920s. Even with these self-imposed boundaries, the narrative bursts with a dizzying succession of tales about the politicos, impresarios, merchants, sportsmen, performers, gangsters and hustlers who accounted for an unprecedented burst of creativity and achievement. Readers with even a passing acquaintance with Jazz Age New York will recognize many of Miller’s characters—Mayor Jimmy Walker, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Duke Ellington, Jack Dempsey, Walter Chrysler, David Sarnoff, Florenz Ziegfeld—but how many know the story of Othmar Ammann, perhaps history’s greatest designer of steel bridges? Or bootlegger Owney Madden, model for his friend George Raft’s silver-screen gangster? Or Lois Long, hard-living fashion editor for Harold Ross’ New Yorker? Or boxing promoter Tex Rickard, first to recognize that each fight required an intriguing narrative to build box office sales? Or the charismatic Horace Liveright, who thought of each book he published as an event? How the speak-easies hummed and how Prohibition democratized drinking, how cosmetics queens (and mortal enemies) Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden blazed new paths for women, how Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue became fashion meccas, how “mansions in the sky” blossomed all over the city—all this and much more cram Miller’s sprightly narrative about a city so convinced of its centrality as to employ an “official greeter.”

A scholarly enough social history but one with plenty of sex appeal.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4165-5019-8

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

An engaging history that raises provocative questions about the future of nuclear science.

THE AGE OF RADIANCE

THE EPIC RISE AND DRAMATIC FALL OF THE ATOMIC ERA

Nelson (Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, 2009, etc.) returns with a survey of mankind's use of radioactive materials.

Beginning with the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and ending with the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the author examines the discovery of radium (used for a while in everything from watches to toothpaste), the development of nuclear fission and fusion, and the use of the resulting new elements in nuclear weapons, medicine and power generation. Nelson’s coverage of the science underlying this saga is admirably thorough and accessible, but this is no impersonal "march of science" story. The author also shows how the development of nuclear physics was deeply influenced by contemporary politics and the interplay of the personalities involved. He includes lively biographies of the men—Wilhelm Roentgen, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and others—who created this new age and of two remarkable women: the celebrated Polish-born Marie Curie and the almost forgotten Austrian Lise Meitner. Nelson characterizes nuclear science as a "two-faced god," a blessing and a curse, and its history as irrational, confusing and conflicted. For example, nuclear weapons are so dreadful that they have effectively prevented war between superpowers, but their production and maintenance have been a staggering waste of resources. The author’s gripping narratives of the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima simply scream that fallible humans should not be messing around with this technology, and yet he argues that nuclear power is still the safest and best option for environmentally responsible power generation. Nevertheless, Nelson contends that the nuclear era is now drawing to a close, as the acquisition of nuclear weapons is viewed only as the mark of a pariah regime, and the dishonesty of governments and industry has ruined the prospects for further development of nuclear power.

An engaging history that raises provocative questions about the future of nuclear science.

Pub Date: March 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4516-6043-2

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

Deeply researched, ingeniously argued.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY IN THE AGE OF EMANCIPATION

A distinguished historian brings his monumental trilogy to a stirring conclusion.

Throughout a lifetime of scholarship devoted to the subject, Davis (Emeritus, History/Yale Univ.; Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, 2006, etc.) has more than established his bona fides as a leading authority on slavery. Here, he considers the decades between the 1780s and the 1880s and the moral achievement of the eradication of human bondage. He eschews a survey in favor of a “highly selective” study of aspects of the Age of Emancipation, particularly as manifest in Britain and the United States. As a predicate, Davis discusses the dehumanizing of slaves (and the scientific racism that perfected this notion), a sordid piece of work that impeded any thought of immediate emancipation, and the Haitian revolution, an example of self-emancipation that horrified whites and was a source of unending pride and hope to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. The author’s treatment of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade and its emancipation act and America’s grappling with the problem of slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War and the 13th Amendment rests on the impeccable scholarship we’ve come to expect, but the triumph here is the sympathetic imagination he brings to the topic. For example, his thorough and intriguing discussion of the American Colonization Society and the colonization movement, a phenomenon derided by many modern historians, helps us understand how the notion arose, how it attracted right-thinking individuals from Jefferson to Lincoln, and how it became discredited, in no small part due to the efforts of free blacks. In a memorable passage, Davis places himself in the minds of a free black abolitionist and a white abolitionist in the antebellum North to articulate attitudes and illustrate the tensions, even among allies, in a noble struggle.

Deeply researched, ingeniously argued.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-307-26909-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

A multifaceted story artfully woven by an expert historian.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • New York Times Bestseller

THE STORY OF THE JEWS

FINDING THE WORDS 1000 BC-1492 AD

Witty, nimble and completely in his element, Schama (History and Art History/Columbia Univ.; Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother, 2011, etc.), in a book tie-in to a PBS and BBC series, fashions a long-planned “labor of love” that nicely dovetails the biblical account with the archaeological record.

Indeed, as this densely written effort accompanies the visual story, the author fixes on a tangible element (such as papyrus, shard or document) in each chapter as a point of departure in advancing the early history of the Jews. For example, a missive in papyrus by a father to his missionary son from an island in the Upper Nile circa 475 B.C. illustrates the thriving expat Jewish community in Egypt, despite the dire “perdition” narrative about Egypt being written at the same time by the first Hebrew sages in Judea and Babylon. The remains of early synagogues in Hellenized Cyrenaica and elsewhere, built in a classical Greek temple style, with graphic mosaics, reveal how the Jews were intimately situated in their crossover surroundings. The inscriptions and excavations at Zafar (in present-day Yemen) attest to the Judaic conversion of the Kingdom of Himyar in the late fourth century, evidence that “the Jews were far from a tenuous, alien presence amid the ethnically Arab world of the Hijaz and the Himyar.” In the long litany of persecution and suppression, climaxing but scarcely ceasing with the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the Jews had to scatter, taking their words with them, and the Torah was later enriched by the “picayune” codifications of the Mishnah and Talmud, all as a way “to rebuild Jerusalem in the imagination and memory.” Schama is relentless in faulting the break between Christianity and Judaism as the spur to the subsequent phobia against the “pariah tribe.”

A multifaceted story artfully woven by an expert historian.

Pub Date: March 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-053918-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

A haunting and illuminating book marking the centennial of the assassination.

THE TRIGGER

TAKING THE JOURNEY THAT LED THE WORLD TO WAR

The engrossing story of Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28, 1914, sparked World War I.

While covering the Bosnian War of the 1990s, former Daily Telegraph correspondent Butcher (Chasing the Devil: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene, 2011, etc.) became intrigued by Princip after visiting a littered Sarajevo chapel that commemorated the assassin’s name. In 2012, he returned to the Balkans to follow the path of the young peasant’s life from his home in the remote hamlet of Obljaj (where Princip left his initials on a rock and declared, “One day people will know my name,”) to Sarajevo, where he became a student and “slow-burn revolutionary” determined to overthrow the Austro-Hungarian occupiers of his homeland. Butcher details the assassination (Princip’s first shot cut the Archduke’s jugular vein; the second killed his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg), the ensuing trial and the assassin’s death in prison from tuberculosis. The author’s intelligent, near-obsessive, textured account of the assassin’s life and times is a fascinating history of a complex region rife with ethnic rivalries and a vivid travelogue of a dangerous journey across a landscape marked by the minefields and devastation of the fighting of the 1990s. More broadly, Butcher makes clear the importance of Princip’s act as the spark that detonated an “explosive mix of old-world superiority, diplomatic miscalculation, strategic paranoia and hubristic military overconfidence.” Deliberately misrepresenting the assassin’s motives (which were to liberate not only Serbia, but all south Slavs), Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, which led to World War I. Butcher notes that under different regimes, Princip has been remembered variously as a hero and a terrorist. The author views him as “an everyman for the anger felt by millions who were downtrodden far beyond the Balkans.”

A haunting and illuminating book marking the centennial of the assassination.

Pub Date: June 3, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2325-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

A grand and grim narrative of thrilling exploration for fans of Into Thin Air, Mountains of the Moon and the like.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • New York Times Bestseller

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE

THE GRAND AND TERRIBLE POLAR VOYAGE OF THE U.S.S. <I>JEANNETTE</I>

Another crackling tale of adventure from journalist/explorer Sides (Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, 2010, etc.), this one focusing on a frigid disaster nearly 150 years ago.

When the Jeannette, commanded by a dashing officer named George De Long, disappeared in the Arctic waters of Russia on a long expeditionary voyage that began in the summer of 1879, American newspapers thought it did not necessarily mean disaster: They preferred to see it as a sign that the ship had broken through the dreaded polar ice and was now sailing freely, if without communication, in the open polar sea. No such luck: As Sides documents, the Jeannette and its crew met a gruesome end; toward the end of his narrative, we tour their icy cemetery, here the Chinese cook gazing serenely into the sky, there De Long lying barehanded with arm upraised, as if he “had raised his left arm and flung his journal behind him in the snow, away from the embers of the fire.” When contemporaries took that tour and reports came out, the newspapers were full of speculation about even more gruesome possibilities, which Sides, on considering the evidence, dismisses. Given that a bad outcome is promised in the book’s subtitle, readers should not find such things too surprising. The better part of the narrative is not in the sad climax but in the events leading up to it, from De Long’s life and education at sea to the outfitting of the ship (complete with a storeroom full of “barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer”), personality clashes among members of the crew, and the long, tragic history of polar expedition.

A grand and grim narrative of thrilling exploration for fans of Into Thin Air, Mountains of the Moon and the like.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-53537-3

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

Gripping and as well-crafted as an episode of Smiley’s People, full of cynical inevitability, secrets, lashings of whiskey...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • New York Times Bestseller

A SPY AMONG FRIENDS

KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL

A tale of espionage, alcoholism, bad manners and the chivalrous code of spies—the real world of James Bond, that is, as played out by clerks and not superheroes.

Now pretty well forgotten, Kim Philby (1912-1988) was once a byname for the sort of man who would betray his country for a song. The British intelligence agent was not alone, of course; as practiced true-espionage writer Macintyre (Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, 2012, etc.) notes, more than 200 American intelligence agents became Soviet agents during World War II—“Moscow had spies in the treasury, the State Department, the nuclear Manhattan Project, and the OSS”—and the Brits did their best to keep up on their end. Philby may have been an unlikely prospect, given his upper-crust leanings, but a couple of then-fatal flaws involving his sexual orientation and still-fatal addiction to alcohol, to say nothing of his political convictions, put him in Stalin’s camp. Macintyre begins near the end, with a boozy Philby being confronted by a friend in intelligence, fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, whom he had betrayed; but rather than take Philby to prison or put a bullet in him, by the old-fashioned code, he was essentially allowed to flee to Moscow. Writing in his afterword, John Le Carré recalls asking Elliott, with whom he worked in MI6, about Philby’s deceptions—“it quickly became clear that he wanted to draw me in, to make me marvel…to make me share his awe and frustration at the enormity of what had been done to him.” For all Philby’s charm (“that intoxicating, beguiling, and occasionally lethal English quality”), modern readers will still find it difficult to imagine a world of gentlemanly spy-versus-spy games all these hysterical years later.

Gripping and as well-crafted as an episode of Smiley’s People, full of cynical inevitability, secrets, lashings of whiskey and corpses.

Pub Date: July 29, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3663-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

A compelling, astute chronicle of the politics and culture of late-20th-century America.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • New York Times Bestseller

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE

THE FALL OF NIXON AND THE RISE OF REAGAN

How Ronald Reagan lost the presidency and won the heart of America.

Building on his first two books—Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)—Perlstein once again delivers a terrific hybrid biography of a Republican leader and the culture he shaped. Where Perlstein's Nixon was the cynic in chief who exploited resentment and frustration to get elected, his Reagan is the star of his own pseudo-reality show, who “framed even the most traumatic events in his life—even his father’s funeral—as always working out gloriously in the end, evidence that the universe was just.” Although the book only goes up to Reagan's loss of the 1976 Republican nomination to President Gerald Ford, the scope of the work never feels limited. Perlstein examines the skeletons in the Reagan, Ford and Carter closets, finds remarkable overlooked details and perfectly captures the dead-heat drama of the Republican convention. Just as deftly, he taps into the consciousness of bicentennial America. He sees this world with fresh eyes; for Perlstein, 1970s America wasn’t the "Me Decade"—a phrase he never uses—so much as the Fear Decade, when a paranoid country was beside itself with worry over CIA revelations, killer bees, abortion, losing the Panama Canal and the grim possibility that you could lose your children (whether Linda Blair or Patty Hearst) to the dark side. Always at the center of the narrative is Reagan, the self-appointed hero who assured a jittery populace that Vietnam and Watergate were just bad dreams. He was America’s cheerleader, the slick beast slouching toward Washington, waiting to be born again.

A compelling, astute chronicle of the politics and culture of late-20th-century America.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-8241-6

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

Though some readers may find the narrative occasionally tedious, this is a complicated story involving staggering...

THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD

SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM

A dense, myth-busting work that pursues how the world profited from American slavery.

The story of slavery in America is not static, as Baptist (History/Cornell Univ.; Creating an Old South: Middle Florida's Plantation Frontier before the Civil War, 2001) points out in this exhaustive tome. It entailed wide-scale forced migrations from the lower East Coast to the South and West of the economically burgeoning United States. Following tobacco production along the Chesapeake Bay, slavery was embraced in the newly opened territories of Kentucky and Mississippi, where slaves were force-marched in coffles, separated from families, bought and sold to new owners, and then used to clear fields and plant indigo and the new cash crop, cotton. Although some advanced attempts to ban slavery—e.g., in the Northwest Ordinance—the newly hammered-out Constitution codified it by the Three-Fifths Compromise. In the name of unity, the delegates agreed with South Carolina’s John Rutledge that “religion and humanity [have] nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations.” Using the metaphor of a trussed-up giant body à la Gulliver, Baptist divides his chapters by body parts, through which he viscerally delineates the effects of the violence of slavery—e.g., “Feet” encapsulates the experience of forced migration through intimate stories, while “Right Hand” and “Left Hand” explore the insidious methods of the “enslavers” to solidify their holdings. Baptist moves chronologically, though in a roundabout fashion, often backtracking and repeating, and thoroughly examines every area affected by slavery, from New Orleans to Boston, Kansas to Cuba. He challenges the comfortable myth of “Yankee ingenuity” as our founding growth principle, showing how cotton picking drove U.S. exports and finance from 1800 to 1860—as well as the expansion of Northern industry.

Though some readers may find the narrative occasionally tedious, this is a complicated story involving staggering scholarship that adds greatly to our understanding of the history of the United States.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-465-00296-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

A profound historical portrait of Paris for anyone who loves the city.

WHEN PARIS WENT DARK

THE CITY OF LIGHT UNDER GERMAN OCCUPATION, 1940-1944

An exploration of “what it would have been like to be [in Paris] under the German Occupation during the Second World War.”

The City of Light passed the war years in a period of sustained urban anxiety, when lives were constantly disrupted and fear reigned. France’s army, “the uninspired being led by the incompetent,” surrendered to the Nazis in June 1940. Rosbottom (Arts and Humanities, French and European Studies/Amherst Coll.) explains the interactions of the French and their occupiers in a way that illuminates their separate miseries. He makes us see that we can never judge those who lived during the occupation just because we know the outcome. If you think you might live the rest of your life under Nazi control, you do everything you can just to survive, feed your family and not get arrested. Who can judge what is accommodation, appeasement, acceptance, collaboration or treason? When they moved in, the Germans requisitioned all automobiles, rationed food, established curfews and cut back on power. The French police were merely German puppets, responsible for nearly 90 percent of the Jewish arrests. The members of the Vichy government were equally reviled. The author attentively includes German and French letters and journals that explain the loneliness, desperation and the very French way of getting by. Both during and after the war, the French seemed to be highly prone to denouncing their fellow resistors, neighbors, friends and family, but the Resistance was nothing like we’re shown in many popular portrayals. Instead, there was mostly quiet defiance, such as whistling when Nazis trooped by or printing anti-German and anti-Vichy tracts. The Resistance was only truly effective the few days before and after D-Day. Otherwise, the foolhardy deeds of a few young, disorganized men brought brutal reprisals and misery.

A profound historical portrait of Paris for anyone who loves the city.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-316-21744-6

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

An exhaustive feat of research with a focused structure and robust prose.

LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS

THE WAR FOR PUBLIC OPINION

Hefty study of partisan journalism as vigorously embraced by Abraham Lincoln and the warring New York dailies.

Lincoln knew the power of the press (“public sentiment is everything,” he declared in 1858), and he made sure his views were published in supportive journals and even secretly purchased the newspaper for the German-American community in Springfield, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger. In this engaging history of one of the most divisive periods in American politics, the buildup to the Civil War, Lincoln historian Holzer (The Civil War in 50 Objects, 2013, etc.) tracks how the great political clashes played out in the lively press of the day, creating not-so-delicate marriages between politicians and the journalists writing the “news” (which was more opinion than actual news). From the early penny presses emerged the New York Herald, published by the formidable Scotsman James Gordon Bennett, a scandalmonger and disputatious contrarian who regularly skewered both parties, Democratic or Whig (Republican), while remaining anti-abolition and a fierce critic of Lincoln; the New York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley, crusader for faddish causes from utopian socialism to gender equality, who regularly ran for office and both supported Lincoln and later tried to unseat him; and the New York Times, established by Henry Jarvis Raymond as a “mean between two extremes,” promising a more “sober” and “mature” approach yet unabashedly pro-Lincoln, especially as Raymond became head of the Republican Party. The newspapermen bristled at the others’ successes and unloosed competitive salvos in their respective pages over the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1850, the roaring 20-year rivalry between Stephen Douglas and Lincoln, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—and, especially, the contentious presidential elections of 1860 and ’64. Other regional newspapers establishing fierce positions on slavery struggled for survival, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ Paper (later Monthly).

An exhaustive feat of research with a focused structure and robust prose.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-1439192719

Page Count: 832

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

A unique moment in history superbly captured. Yet another triumph for Wright.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • New York Times Bestseller

THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER

CARTER, BEGIN, AND SADAT AT CAMP DAVID

A Pulitzer Prize–winning author reconstructs and reflects on “one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the twentieth century” and the men who made it happen.

Even though the contemplated regional framework for peace collapsed, the 1978 agreement forged at Camp David between Israel and Egypt has held, a remarkable achievement in the tortured history of the Middle East, “where antique grudges never lose their stranglehold on the societies in their grip.” New Yorker staff writer Wright (Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, 2013, etc.) presents a day-by-day account of the tense negotiations, artfully mixing in modern and ancient history, biblical allusions, portraits of the principals—Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat—and thumbnail sketches of key participants: Americans Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Israelis Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, and Egyptians Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The author examines all the forces that shaped these historic talks: the isolation imposed by the presidential retreat high in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains; the divisions within the Egyptian and Israeli delegations; the almost unprecedented nature of detailed negotiations conducted not by subordinates but by the heads of state; the hazardous political stakes for each leader and the powerful role played by their deeply held religious beliefs; the critical part played by President Jimmy Carter, who moved adroitly from facilitator to catalyst to secure an agreement. Throughout, telling detail abounds: Rosalynn Carter spontaneously suggesting to her husband that the intransigents should come to the beautiful and peaceful Camp David to revive stalled talks; Begin startling his hosts on a brief outing to the Gettysburg battlefield by reciting Lincoln’s entire address from memory; Carter dramatically accusing Sadat of betrayal and, at one point, thinking to himself that Begin was a “psycho”; Israel’s fiercest warrior, Dayan, by then going blind, bloodying his nose by walking into a tree; Begin bursting into tears as Carter presents him with conference photos inscribed to each of the prime minister’s grandchildren.

A unique moment in history superbly captured. Yet another triumph for Wright.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0385352031

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

Deeply researched and well-written, this book will appeal to general readers and specialists alike.

THE EMPIRE OF NECESSITY

SLAVERY, FREEDOM, AND DECEPTION IN THE NEW WORLD

Pulitzer Prize finalist Grandin (History/New York Univ.; Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, 2009, etc.) offers a splendid account of the 1804 slave rebellion made famous in Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno.

On a sealing expedition in the South Pacific, veteran captain Amasa Delano (1763–1823) encountered a ship in seeming distress, boarded it to provide food and water, and discovered a great deception: The black-skinned people on board—West African slaves—were in command of the vessel and holding its Spanish captain hostage. The clever role-playing by mutinous slaves sharply contradicted the prevailing belief that slaves lacked cunning and reason, and Grandin uses the episode as a revealing window on the Atlantic slave trade and life in Spanish America in the early 1800s. Delano, a veteran seaman from New England, where slavery supported the economy, is seen as “a new man of the American Revolution” who, like many, championed freedom and found slavery morally reprehensible, yet nonetheless played his own role in the system. He eventually led an attack on the rebel-held ship and tortured many captives. Grandin’s research in the archives, libraries and museums of nine countries shines forth on each page of this excellent book. He writes with authority on every aspect of the “slavers’ fever” that gripped the New World and details vividly the horrors of disease-ridden slave ships (“floating tombs”), the treks of slave caravans overland through the pampas to Lima from Buenos Aires, and the harsh, brutal life of sealers, who clubbed and skinned their victims, annihilating many seal rookeries of the Argentine and Chilean islands. The author also examines the parallels between Melville’s novel and the historic incident, and he reflects on evidence of the omnipresence of slavery as an institution that he discovered on his research travels.

Deeply researched and well-written, this book will appeal to general readers and specialists alike.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9453-4

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2013

A lucid, first-rate history of the results of a war whose beginning a century ago we are busily commemorating.

THE DELUGE

THE GREAT WAR, AMERICA AND THE REMAKING OF THE GLOBAL ORDER, 1916-1931

A vigorously defended argument that the war to end all wars was really the origin of a new world order and American superpower.

Taking a truly global view of World War I, Tooze (History/Yale Univ.; The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, 2007, etc.) holds that the conflict was Europe’s undoing in more ways than one. Obviously, it laid the groundwork for the global war to follow, but it also announced the arrival of an America that was able to act unilaterally on the world stage. The huge bloodletting also left the losing, and even some of the victorious, powers politically unstable. The author highlights Hitler, of course, but also Leon Trotsky as representatives of a sweeping change by which the war “opened a new phase of ‘world organization.’ ” What is novel about Tooze’s thesis is that, in this light, Hitler, Mussolini and the military leaders of Imperial Japan saw themselves as rebels against this new world order, which oppressed Germany financially and dismissed Italian and Japanese claims for rewards for their parts in defeating the Central Powers; all resented the notion that the terms of the transition to this new world order were dictated by the upstart United States. Interesting, too, is the author’s interpretation of America’s artful use of soft power, favoring political and economic influence over direct military intervention whenever possible. One negative consequence was Wilson’s negotiation of a “peace without victory” at the end of the war that promoted a subsequent instability made lethal with the worldwide economic collapse a decade later. In discussing what he calls “the fiasco of Wilsonism,” Tooze sometimes drifts into highly technical economic matters such as the mechanics of hyperinflation, but his narrative is gripping—and sobering, since readers well know the tragedies that followed.

A lucid, first-rate history of the results of a war whose beginning a century ago we are busily commemorating.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-0670024926

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2014

A well-documented, evenhanded work that will delight urban scholars and lay travelers.

CITIES OF EMPIRE

THE BRITISH COLONIES AND THE CREATION OF THE URBAN WORLD

Ten vibrant cities across the globe tell the story of British imperialism in terms more nuanced and complicated than simply being good or bad.

British historian and Labour Party education spokesman Hunt (History/Univ. of London; Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, 2009, etc.) finds Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) too focused on the “heroic age of Victorian achievement.” Hunt offers a broader, more inclusive approach to the history of British imperial ambition through the evolving institutions, architecture, economies and mores of the empire’s far-flung transplanted urbanism, from the 17th century to today. Most of the cities are ports (save New Delhi) and evolved from specific strategic and financial exigencies on the British empire at a specific point in time: Bustling Boston represented the maritime empire’s more “benign and flexible connotations” (until the Revolution); Bridgetown, Barbados, avidly promoted the export economy through sugar production and the slave trade, allowing the wealthy plantocracy to stock their houses with all manner of fancy British goods. In the 1780s and ’90s, Dublin symbolized the enthusiasm for a unifying colonial relationship, however directed by a “narrow urban elite.” Cape Town, wrested from the Dutch, offered by its wondrous geography an imperial supremacy after the Seven Years’ War, while Calcutta symbolized “a colonial citadel which cemented Britain’s ‘Swing to the East.’ ” Hunt takes great pains to underscore the important, changeable relationship between settlers and the indigenous peoples. For example, in Melbourne in the late 19th century, the Aborigines were deemed too backward for “redemption” and thus were excluded from discussions on how to govern the colony. In moneymaking Bombay, the symbol of Britain’s capacity for technological and administrative progress, the multiethnic residents played an enormous role in creating the urban landscape. Throughout the book, Hunt ably demonstrates how these cities and their colonizations contributed to the development of urbanism.

A well-documented, evenhanded work that will delight urban scholars and lay travelers.

Pub Date: Nov. 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-0805093087

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

An important—even necessary—addition to the groaning shelves of Civil War volumes.

THE CAUSE OF ALL NATIONS

AN INTERNATIONAL HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

Before and during the Civil War, both North and South lobbied hard in key European capitals to convince officials and the general population of the justness of their causes.

Impressively, Doyle (History/Univ. of South Carolina; Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements, 2010) provides some novel insights about this most chronicled of conflicts. Although he alludes periodically to the military campaigns—from Bull Run to Appomattox—he uses them principally as reference points, signposts on his journey through the complex and fierce diplomatic efforts underway in England, France, Italy and the Vatican. Many Europeans, especially those with republican sympathies, could not understand why Abraham Lincoln, early in the war, refused to declare the North’s effort as a war on slavery; Southern diplomats sought to downplay the slavery issue for their own reasons and focused on the tyranny of the North and on the Southern desire for independence. The South desperately sought political recognition from European powers and hoped for military and financial aid as well. They found precious little, and as the war wound down, the European powers backed off (some had made renewed efforts to re-establish themselves in the Western Hemisphere—France in Mexico, for example), especially when the South remained intransigent about slavery. Doyle brings onto the stage a number of figures unfamiliar to all but scholars of the Civil War—envoys and diplomats, some of whom surreptitiously sought to enlist the participation of Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was virulently opposed to slavery and who toyed somewhat with the offers to lead the Union Army. Lincoln’s eloquent oratory was among the most powerful of the Union’s weapons abroad, and Doyle ably conveys the widespread, genuine grief in Europe when news of his assassination arrived.

An important—even necessary—addition to the groaning shelves of Civil War volumes.

Pub Date: Dec. 30, 2014

ISBN: 978-0465029679

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

More Book Lists

The Magazine: Kirkus Reviews

Jenn Shapland reclaims a queer icon in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

subscribe
  • The Kirkus Star

    One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.

  • The Kirkus Prize

    The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.

    See the 2019 winners.

Great Books & News Curated For You

Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in Kirkus Reviews. Get awesome content delivered to your inbox every week.

Thank you!

Looks good !! Please provide a valid email.