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book reviews


  • Originally published 05/19/2014

    Review of Sherry L. Smith's "Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power"

    Rather than simply focusing upon the excesses of the movement which degenerated into the Rolling Stones Altamont concert and the bloody murders of the Manson family, Smith chooses to emphasize the positive legacy of the counterculture’s interest in Native American history and culture.

  • Originally published 05/12/2014

    Review of “Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis”

    Patrick Henry’s masterly collection of cerebral and quite readable essays in "Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis," proves that Jews fighting the Nazis and their allies, violently and nonviolently, was fairly common.

  • Originally published 03/25/2014

    Review of "Stokely: A Life"

    Peniel E. Joseph's new biography restores the voice of Carmichael to the history of the civil rights movement.

  • Originally published 08/04/2013

    Luther Spoehr: Review of William J. Reese's “Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History” (Harvard University Press, 2013.)

    When the examiners for the Boston School Committee visited the city’s public schools at the end of the 1845 school year, they brought along a surprise.  Instead of the standard public questioning, recitation, and exhibitions, students were to take written examinations.  This development, says William Reese, was as revolutionary as it was unexpected.  Linked as it was to other reforms advocated by Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and his allies in Boston, it was instrumental in establishing the template for public schooling across the country that still exists today.

  • Originally published 08/01/2013

    Jim Cullen: Review of Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" (Harper, 2013)

    At one point early on in The Sleepwalkers, University of Cambridge Professor Christopher Clark cites a perception -- certainly one I had growing up -- of the First World War taking place on the far side of a historical divide. "It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe's 'last summer' as an Edwardian costume drama," he writes, attributing this view to Barbara Tuchman books. "The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the 'ornamentalism' of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world."

  • Originally published 06/18/2013

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Exploring Peter Hessler's China From the Ground Up

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land. Like other Americans, I draw a sharp line, linguistically and symbolically, between mice and rats. But one thing I learned during my first trip to China a quarter of a century ago was that the distinction between these two kinds of rodents, both typically called laoshu in Chinese, is fuzzier there. When posters went up in Shanghai to accompany a campaign to purge that metropolis of vermin, they showed Mickey Mouse with a spike through his heart. These images shocked me but local residents seemed to find them unremarkable.

  • Originally published 06/17/2013

    Murray Polner: Review of Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman's "FDR and the Jews" (Belknap, 2013)

    Years after World War II ended I often visited Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, nicknamed the “Fourth Reich” because of its large number of Central European Jews who had escaped the Nazis, the Kissinger family among them. Whether they were eligible to vote or not, they overwhelmingly supported FDR, grateful for having been welcomed into the country. Nearby, a goodly number of them lived on the Upper West Side, all well-served by German-Jewish cultural and social societies and Aufbau, a literate, once-thriving German language Jewish newspaper.

  • Originally published 06/08/2013

    Murray Polner: Review of Kenneth T. MacLeish’s "Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community" (Princeton, 2013)

    Fort Hood, in Texas, is named after Confederate General John Bell Hood, who lost his arm and leg at Gettysburg and Chickamauga but was defeated at Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee. It employs 50,000 troops and civilian employees and is close by the city of Killeen, population 130,000, and which, like most military satellite cities and towns, thrives because of its location, selling food, goods of all sorts, housing, and loans, some no doubt predatory. In fact, as Kenneth T. MacLeish writes, Killeen is “more prosperous than Austin, the state capital, home to a large university and a booming tech sector.” 

  • Originally published 05/19/2013

    Bernard von Bothmer: Review of Harold Holzer's "The Civil War in 50 Objects" (Viking, 2013)

    Bernard von Bothmer is an adjunct professor of history at the University of San Francisco and Dominican University of California. He is the author of "Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush" (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010). The Civil War, the nation’s most important event, is the subject of seemingly endless fascination. This majestic compilation of objects from the era reminds us why.

  • Originally published 04/24/2013

    Bernard von Bothmer: Review of Ron Reagan's "My Father at 100" (Viking Penguin, 2011)

    Bernard von Bothmer is an adjunct professor of history at the University of San Francisco and Dominican University. He is the author of "Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush" (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).Ron Reagan, one of only twenty-seven living children of American presidents, has written a fascinating portrait of the nation’s fortieth president. My Father at 100 is a moving tribute to the eternal, and complicated, bonds between fathers and sons and between children and aging or deceased parents. It also offers detailed insight into the character and personality of the enigmatic Ronald Reagan.

  • Originally published 03/21/2013

    Richard J. Evans: Review of Eric Hobsbawm's "Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century"

    Richard J Evans's The Third Reich at War is published by PenguinEric Hobsbawm was the best-known and most celebrated historian of the 20th century, not just in Britain but all over the world. His major works, four substantial volumes covering the history of Europe in its global context from the French revolution in 1789 to the fall of communism two centuries later, have remained in print ever since their first publication. More than half a century after it appeared, The Age of Revolution is still a staple of university reading lists. The Age of Extremes has been translated into more than 50 languages, and no doubt the foreign publication record of his other books is just as impressive.

  • Originally published 02/27/2013

    Alex Joffe: Review of Halik Kochanski’s "The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War"

    Alex Joffe received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991.The adage “history is written by the winners” is no more than a half-truth. Losers, too, have always written history and, more important, enshrined their losses in memory. A new history of Poland in World War II thus has particular significance. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually vanished from the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century, when Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided it up among themselves; and the Poles regained their independence only in 1918.  In their new republic, ethnic Poles were a majority, but Ukrainians, Belorussians, Germans and, of course, Jews constituted a large minority.  The Jews alone made up more than 10 per cent of the country’s population.   Mustn’t any history of Poland in the Second World War therefore put the Jews and the Holocaust at the center?  If it does not, is that originality or revisionism?  Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War offers important insights into the Polish experience of the war, but her treatment of the Jewish Question is less satisfying.

  • Originally published 02/22/2013

    Charles L. Ponce de Leon: Review of Douglas Brinkley's "Cronkite"

    Charles L. Ponce de Leon, an associate professor of History and American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is completing a book on the history of television news.More than thirty years after his retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News—and over three years after his death in 2009—Walter Cronkite remains an iconic figure. He appears in the opening montage of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, and his name is routinely evoked in laments about the “decline” of broadcast journalism, which invariably remind us that he was the “most trusted man in America,” a courageous truth-teller committed to objectivity and “hard news.”Douglas Brinkley’s long, absorbing biography of Cronkite does little to alter this impression. He tells us lots of interesting things about the man, but relatively little about how he became a mythic figure. Nor does he say very much about the particular kind of journalism that Cronkite and his colleagues produced. This is too bad, since Cronkite was at the center of a fascinating moment in the history of American mass media, and the television news that he came to embody was fleeting and highly unusual—an attempt to produce serious journalism in a medium associated with escapism.

  • Originally published 02/19/2013

    Murray Polner: Review of Sam Roberts's "Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America" (Grand Central Publishing, 2013)

    Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for HNN.Compared to shabby and uninspiring Penn Station, Manhattan’s other train station on the west side of Manhattan, the latest version of Grand Central Terminal in chic East Midtown Manhattan, which includes Madison and Park Avenues and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, is a stunning work of architectural genius. New York Times reporter Sam Roberts’s Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America is beautifully illustrated with a very readable text, an appropriate acknowledgment of the hundredth anniversary of the station’s past and present.

  • Originally published 02/17/2013

    Luther Spoehr: Review of Robert Sullivan's "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

    Luther Spoehr is a book editor for HNN and senior lecturer at Brown University.As a native Pennsylvanian, I’m always glad to see the Middle Atlantic states get their historical due, even when, as in this case, New York and New Jersey get more attention than the Keystone State, and even when the presentation is far from conventional. Robert Sullivan, whose articles have appeared in the New Yorker and elsewhere and who has written books on topics ranging from rats to Henry David Thoreau, looks at the landscape of the American Revolution, treating the terrain as a kind of palimpsest and trying, through research and imagination, to peel back the layers and see it as it was almost two-and-a-half centuries ago.

  • Originally published 02/06/2013

    Andrew Feffer: Review of Marjorie Heins’s "Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge" (NYU, 2013)

    Andrew Feffer is a Professor of History and Co-Director of Film Studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY. He is currently writing a book on the impact of the Rapp-Coudert investigation on the intellectual life of New York City.In the fall of 1940 through the winter of 1941, as Europe passed into the second year of world war and the nation slowly climbed out of the Great Depression, faculty, students and staff from New York City’s municipal colleges were called before a tribunal of the New York State Legislature investigating Communist subversion. Before it was done in spring 1942, the Rapp-Coudert investigation, as this witch-hunt was called, had stripped dozens of people of their jobs, careers and reputations. Pearl Harbor had not yet happened. The Cold War would not start for another seven years. And yet something resembling “McCarthyism” had already begun.

  • Originally published 01/29/2013

    Avishai Margalit: Review of Hadara Lazar's "Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel"

    Avishai Margalit is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the winner of the 2012 Philosophical Book Award (Hanover) for his most recent book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises.The British rule over Palestine lasted roughly thirty years, from 1917 until 1948. In a country that has three thousand years of recorded history, thirty years is a tiny fraction. If we conceive of three thousand years on a scale of one day, the period of British rule takes barely eight minutes. In comparison, Turkish Ottoman rule over Palestine, which lasted four hundred years, takes an hour and forty minutes. Yet the influence of these thirty years was deep and wide-ranging.1 Under British rule, Palestine became a political unit, not a marginal province of something else. The British made Jerusalem the capital city of Palestine; they introduced the idea of professional civil service, and they encouraged a lively civil society; they built roads and airfields, and provided sound legal institutions and reliable police.

  • Originally published 01/28/2013

    Jim Cullen: Review of David Shambaugh's "China Goes Global: The Partial Power" (Oxford, 2013)

    Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, has just been published by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.Here's a book that has its title right -- a statement worth making because so many stretch or bend them for marketing purposes. And that's only the beginning of the elegant distillation George Washington University political scientist David Shambaugh provides in this useful volume, which offers a detailed yet concise portrait of a nation widely perceived as on the cusp of what the Chinese government often ascribes to its American rival: hegemony.

  • Originally published 01/28/2013

    Ron Radosh: Review of Anne Applebaum's "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956"

    Ron Radosh is a PJ Media columnist and Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.At the end of World War II, Eastern and Central Europe were “liberated” from Nazism only to see it replaced by a social order installed by the other great totalitarian nation, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In his famous speech at Westminster College in March 1946, Winston Churchill told the world that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” The left wing at the time saw the charge as outrageous and as warmongering. Anne Applebaum’s book not only confirms the accuracy of Churchill’s understanding that Moscow was establishing regimes that would attempt to duplicate the Soviet system, but she shows that the Soviet-led rulers of those regimes would attempt to eradicate any independent civil society and build a new human being — “Homo Sovieticus,” the new Soviet man — who would accept his essential role as the builder of Communism.

  • Originally published 01/22/2013

    John Nagl: Review of Max Boot's "Invisible Armies"

    Mr. Nagl, a retired Army officer, is the author of "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife" and helped write "The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual."In 2003, I deployed to Anbar Province in Iraq with my armored battalion to conduct counterinsurgency operations. I had spent nearly a decade studying the subject academically, and my reading had convinced me that counterinsurgency was the hardest kind of war, much more intellectually and emotionally difficult than the tank warfare I had seen in Iraq in 1991. Even so, I was unprepared for the blind-man's-bluff challenge of fighting an enemy I could rarely see. I would have been on firmer ground if I had read Max Boot's "Invisible Armies" before I had deployed to Iraq. The prolific journalist and military historian has taken on no less a task than presenting the "epic history of guerrilla warfare from ancient times to the present."...

  • Originally published 08/21/2012

    Robert D. Parmet: Review of Eric Laursen's "The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan" (AK Press, 2012)

    Robert D. Parmet is professor of history at York College of the City University of New York.In 1964 Barry Goldwater discovered that suggestions to reduce or replace Social Security can be politically hazardous. Twelve years later Ronald Reagan lost the Republican presidential primary election in Florida in part because he attacked Social Security. Nevertheless, the assaults persisted, and since Reagan’s election in 1980 have become increasingly sophisticated and intense. In more than seven hundred pages of text, Eric Laursen describes these efforts in great detail, presenting the provisions of proposed legislation, the campaigns to substitute alternate retirement schemes, and the coalitions of politicians, businessmen, and financiers who to the present day have sought to subvert the landmark social legislation of the New Deal. With Social Security and Medicare major issues in this presidential year, this book provides the background for anyone who wishes to be well-informed.