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Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend

Edward Caudill and Paul G. Ashdown. Rowman & Littlefield, $40 (362p) ISBN 978-1-4422-5186-1

In the fourth book of a series exploring the myths and reality of famous Civil War leaders, University of Tennessee professors Caudill and Ashdown (Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory) demonstrate how George Armstrong Custer’s Civil War experience is critical to understanding his personality, and describe the multiple interpretations of Custer’s life and his influence on American history, society, and culture. The first half of this well-researched book highlights differing interpretations of Custer’s significant Civil War experiences and successes. The second half of the book sketches his frontier experience and includes a short overview of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, with the bulk of the text devoted to a detailed survey of media interpretations of his exploits. For those familiar with Custer’s history, these are the most interesting sections of the book, as the authors analyze historical interpretations of Custer and his role in varied works of fiction and nonfiction. Finally, Caudill and Ashdown look at the influence of the Custer myth on popular perceptions of Native Americans and on other elements of popular culture. Well written and informative, this accessible volume is a valuable addition to serious Custer scholarship. (Oct)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America

T.J. Stiles. Knopf, $30 (592p) ISBN 978-0-307-59264-4

Stiles, winner of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for 2009’s The First Tycoon, grounds this spectacular narrative of George Armstrong Custer in skillful research to deliver a satisfying portrait of a complex, controversial military man. The biography centers on the importance of period context in understanding character, incisively showing that Custer lived uncomfortably on a “chronological frontier” of great modern change in the U.S. Though Custer is best known for his fatal “last stand” at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, Stiles recounts how the officer first attracted national attention for his cavalry exploits during the Civil War. Stiles also delves into the role of celebrity in Custer’s life, tracing the ebb and flow of his popularity over more than a decade after the war, as Custer struggled to find a prominent place in the “peacetime” army that the U.S. deployed in the West against Native Americans. Custer’s personal life was tumultuous: he was a womanizer before and during his marriage to Libbie Bacon, and their home life was complicated by the presence of a freed bondswoman as well as persistent rumors that he had taken a captive Cheyenne woman as his “mistress.” Confidently presenting Custer in all his contradictions, Stiles examines the times to make sense of the man—and uses the man to shed light on the times. Illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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History’s People: Personalities and the Past

Margaret MacMillan. House of Anansi
(PGW, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4870-0005-9

In this erudite analysis of major historical figures, MacMillan (Paris 1919) spotlights individuals who have either made history or documented it. Each chapter focuses on one of five qualities: persuasion, hubris, daring, curiosity, and observational power. The first three chapters present those who have “left their mark on history,” while the last two showcase history’s recorders, who shared a “refreshing freedom from the prejudices and judgments of their own times.” MacMillan’s more surprising choices are her most interesting. While Hitler and Stalin are obvious examples of political hubris, Woodrow Wilson is an idiosyncratic—and more fascinating—choice. Nixon, hardly the most the charismatic of American presidents, is convincingly portrayed as a leader of considerable daring in his outreach to Mao’s China. MacMillan’s fascination with history’s more curious observers builds the book’s strongest chapters. Through describing the lives of people such as Victor Klemperer, a German Jewish academic who survived and documented life in Nazi Germany, or Count Harry Kessler, one of the great record keepers of European life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, MacMillan deftly and engagingly shows that history is a process of capturing the minutiae of life as much as time’s epic strokes. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge

Becky Libourel Diamond. Westholme, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-59416-231-2

Diamond, a journalist and research historian (Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School) specializes in reconstructing 18th- and 19th-century American recipes. This richly detailed chronicle showcases the fantastic dining experience concocted in 1851 by Philadelphia chef James W. Parkinson in response to a challenge from 15 wealthy New Yorkers who claimed their city produced the best meals. Parkinson, an early advocate of American foods, devised a 17-course banquet (including wines) that took more than 11 hours to consume. Diamond dishes out more than the menu of this remarkable meal, deconstructing each course with details of the class mores, cultural habits, and food preferences of elite 19th-century Americans. Diamond adds another layer of richness to her account by weaving in the history of the various foods and the array of utensils, touching on soup’s 5,000-year-old history and heralding “the invention of leak-free containers which could withstand boiling over an open fire.” This tale of a Gilded Age mega-meal will delight culinary historians and anyone wanting a peek at over-the-top consumption. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song

Sara Bareilles. Simon & Schuster, $28 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4767-2777-6

In this balanced, honest collection of eight essays, each “anchored by song,” Grammy-nominated singer Bareilles shares the story of her life “so far,” beginning with her childhood in Eureka, Calif. When she was 12, her parents divorced but remained on good terms; Bareilles journaled her way through the experience, learning early on to use paper and pen as a way to process her innermost feelings. Teased by peers as a child, she was scarred by “fat trashing” but eventually found her way to a new school and friends, theater, and singing. After a broken teenage love affair, Bareilles wrote the popular song “Gravity” and began her journey to professional songwriting and singing, eventually signing a record contract and releasing five albums with and several hits. Readers will also learn the inspiration behind “Once upon Another Time,” “Love Song,” “Beautiful Girl,” “Red,” “Many the Miles,” “Brave” and “She Used to Be Mine” were birthed. Though Bareilles asserts that writing the book was the hardest thing she’s ever done, her prose has a natural rhythm, and the stories behind each song are organically woven throughout. Fans will be more enamored, as, like Bareilles’s music, this biography resonates with authentic and hard-won truths. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Frank & Ava, in Love and War

John Brady. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-07091-3

Veteran editor and author Brady (Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater) approaches the love-hate history of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner with reliable thoroughness. He reveals his sources for each chapter, promising that “no scenes or conversations are fabricated,” and an impressive bibliography shows the depth of his research. These resources build an unusually blunt, absorbing portrait of “the Voice,” whose disdain for others was often jaw-dropping. Sinatra gave Buddy Rich $25,000 to fund his own band so he’d be free to dally with the drummer’s wife, and had an affair with Lauren Bacall while Humphrey Bogart, her husband and Sinatra’s friend, was dying. Brady refrains from coming to his own conclusions about Sinatra, letting other voices speak. Wilfried Sheed is quoted as saying Sinatra was “doing what practically every man in America at least wanted to do—cheating on his wife and chasing after Ava Gardner.” The repeated ups and downs of the Sinatra-Gardner relationship and careers become tiresome, but Brady knows how to keep readers turning pages all the way to the end of Sinatra’s career, when everything that he had collected was sold at auction. Anyone remotely curious about either of these larger-than-life characters will want to read Brady’s book. Agent: Julia Lord, Julia Lord Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Fun City: John Lindsay, Joe Namath, and How Sports Saved New York in the 1960s

Sean Deveney. Sports Publishing, $24.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61321-815-0

Deveney, a longtime writer and editor with Sporting News, nimbly chronicles the ups and downs of New York mayor John V. Lindsay and New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, two big personalities who faced high demands while riding a humongous wave of late-1960s political and social tumult. By 1965, according to Time magazine, as Deveney notes here, New York City had become “a shiftless slattern, mired in problems that had been allowed to proliferate for decades.” Economic and technological changes left scores of N.Y.C. residents unemployed. Those looking to sports for a distraction only got more grief. The once-powerful Yankees and Giants were felled by age, institutional miscues, and plain old ennui. Change was needed in both spheres. Lindsay, an erudite, handsome 43-year-old Congressman, entered the mayor’s office in 1965 with a progressive mind-set (paying attention to minorities and ghettos), but his patrician air rankled blue-collar workers and their unions. Namath, hedonistic and shaggy-haired, took over as the Jets quarterback that same year, quickly becoming a headline-hogging sex symbol who elicited resentment from his teammates—and swoons from the ladies. This impressively researched history serves as a vivid portrait of the two men’s valiant, if fruitless, quest for greatness in a perpetually unforgiving city. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game

Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. Flatiron, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-250-06069-3

Baseball Hall of Famer Gibson, a star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals for 17 seasons, provides a fascinating peek into his complex thoughts while on the mound during one of the most memorable games in World Series history. The two-time Cy Young winner, having hurled 13 shutouts, faced Detroit pitching ace Denny McLain on October 2, 1968 in the first series game at Busch Stadium. Unafraid to reveal the flaws of his game, Gibson, with writer Lonnie Wheeler, moves with ease behind the scenes, writing about teammates, coaches, rivals, and the opposition in this savvy analysis of the landmark contest. He calls every inning and every pitch. This is not a book about fastballs or breaking pitches, but about the close bond between Gibson and catcher Tim McCarver in a 17 strikeout effort, and their winning strategies against the heart of the Tigers team: Norm Cash, Jim “the Slammer” Northup, and Bill Freehan. In each anecdote, Gibson embodies the soul of baseball: fearless, intense, and talented. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War

Louise DeSalvo. Fordham Univ., $24.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0-8232-6884-9

Prolific author/memoirist DeSalvo (Vertigo) focuses her latest work on her father, Louis DeSalvo, a WWII veteran who died in 2005. DeSalvo first takes readers through his early life in North Bergen, N.J., describing his devoted mother and violent, philandering father, both from Italy. In 1935, Louis joined the Navy, hoping to escape his father’s temper. He lacked a high school degree, so his dream of becoming a pilot was thwarted, but his knowledge of mechanics led to the job of aviation machinist, and his skills would become even more valuable when he was called back for a second tour of duty in the Admiralties during WWII. After the war, DeSalvo asserts, her father was a different man: angry, easily enraged. The author’s relationship with her father was stormy—he once came at her with a kitchen knife—and she remained mystified as to why he blamed her for the family’s many problems (her mother was depressive, her younger sister committed suicide as an adult). Although she describes her father as a harsh man, DeSalvo also unveils his softer side: his love for his grandsons, his charming courtship of her mother, and his loyalty to his family. This painstakingly researched work not only explores a daughter’s love for her father but also probes the dire effects of war (and particularly of WWII) on families, exposing the deeper “wounds of the soul” suffered by both soldiers and their loved ones. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Winners: And How They Succeed

Alastair Campbell. Pegasus, $26.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-6059-8880-1

Campbell (The Blair Years), former Downing Street press secretary under Tony Blair, examines many aspects of winning in this enlightening book. He looks to successful figures from a variety of fields, including both politics and sports, deriving lessons from the strategies that winners employed to achieve their goals. Dividing the book into four parts, Campbell starts with a section dedicated to what he calls “the Holy Trinity” of success—strategy, leadership, and teamwork—and highlights those who excel in these areas. In the second section, he explores what makes for a winning mind-set, focusing mostly on top athletes. The third section concerns what Campbell identifies as the three key ingredients in getting ahead: bold thinking, innovation, and a reliance on facts rather than prejudices. He concludes with a look at the importance of resilience and the process of overcoming setbacks. Throughout, he profiles people who have achieved greatness using one or more of the concepts he describes, including Angela Merkel, Anna Wintour, Floyd Mayweather, and Queen Elizabeth II. Campbell’s informative and entertaining book offers a treasure trove of insights that are sure to increase the reader’s odds of achieving success. Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Ltd. (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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