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The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896

Richard White. Oxford Univ, $35 (1,008p) ISBN 978-0-19-973581-5

This splendid history from White (Railroaded), professor of American history at Stanford, reveals why the 30 years after the Civil War do not readily draw historians to them. These decades are marked by racial violence, bitter labor strikes, political corruption, and abject poverty, and were filled with loutish, mean-spirited men. Measured by intellectual achievement and reformist zeal, the period was also comparatively drab and unproductive. Yet White manages to imbue these ignoble years with the importance that they’re due. His account’s central focus is public affairs and he foregrounds the West and its native tribes, farmers, workers, and cities; his astute examination of the “Greater Reconstruction of the West” works as a counterpoint to the failures of Southern Reconstruction after 1865. But White covers the whole country, opening with Lincoln and closing with William McKinley’s 1896 election as president. He offers a brilliant chapter on the meaning of home, and though the book generally pays greater attention to the on-the-ground facts of the era than on its intellectual or cultural shifts, that’s a small matter measured against the book’s strengths. White’s great achievement is to capture the drabbest, least-redeeming three decades of American history with unimpeachable authority. Illus. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel

Thomas Suárez. Olive Branch, $20 (418p) ISBN 978-1-56656-068-9

Suárez (Palestine Sixty Years Later) passionately and meticulously exposes the terrorism committed by Zionist groups in Palestine from the post-WWI era of the British Mandate through the early years of the Israeli state. Though not a historian by trade, Suárez ably presents material from British archives, Zionist documents, and other sources to chronicle the relentless onslaught of kidnappings, shootings, and bombings committed by Zionist terror organizations. Suárez outlines the ideological origins and racialized basis of the Zionist political movement and details how groups such as Irgun and Lehi—“the terror gangs of the Mandate era”—spared few to achieve their political aims, targeting native Palestinians, British authorities, and “uncooperative” Jews in Palestine; even WWII refugees and Jewish victims of Nazi crimes were considered fodder for Zionist political aims. He demonstrates the centrality of coercion and terror to the eventual establishment of the Israeli state and argues that the ongoing “conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians is less an intractable collision between historic enemies than it is “the single story” of political Zionism’s “underlying linear violence” and “its determination to expropriate all of Palestine for a ‘Jewish’ settler nation predicated on blood descent—‘race.’ ” Much of Suárez’s work recounts episodes of violence rather than offering analysis, but it is nevertheless an impressive display of historical excavation. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War

Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly. Viking, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-399-56254-9

In this well-written account of dealing with war trauma, a still-taboo subject for many in the military, Brennan and O’Reilly, a retired Marine Corps sergeant and a battle-hardened photojournalist, respectively, confront the manner in which they were consumed by the hell of warfare and saved by the power of words and pictures. In Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Brennan methodically goes about his work, killing Taliban insurgents and children who get in the way. O’Reilly was driven in his own way in covering African wars and civil strife in Congo, Libya, and elsewhere. While embedded in Brennan’s squad, O’Reilly photographs the wounds the sergeant suffers after an explosion. Their lives now linked, when the shooting stops and the blasts end for them, neither man can survive his respective trauma without treatment. O’Reilly seeks help and receives it without much ado. But Brennan must navigate the Corps’s byzantine bureaucracy and the perverse machismo of fellow soldiers and commanders who disparage post-traumatic stress disorder as a weakness. Brennan and O’Reilly strip away any misplaced notions of glamour, bravery, and stoicism to craft an affecting memoir of a deep friendship—one that nourishes their will to survive the memories of horrors that most noncombatants will never fully understand. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky, Stuart Krichevsky Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Simply Dirac

Helge Kragh. Simply Charly, $7.99 trade paper (122p) ISBN 978-1-943657-09-4

Danish historian of science Kragh (Entropic Creation) synthesizes the biographical and intellectual in this concise and considered presentation on Paul Dirac, one of the most important theoretical physicists of the 20th century. Dirac’s interest was in quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, so to render him “simply” is quite a feat. Nevertheless, Kragh strikes the right balance with the material, situating Dirac in relation to his intellectual environment while speaking to his achievements. A physics background is not necessary for understanding the material, but the subject matter is not the most accessible and there is a lot here that readers may find daunting. Kragh covers Dirac’s successes, including his rendering of q-number algebra for quantum mechanics and his theorizing on antimatter, as well as his misses, such as his still-unproven speculation on monopoles and a seemingly failed evolutionary twist to physics in which constants such as gravity change over time. However, Kragh walks the reader through this uncertain terrain by highlighting Dirac the man and what typified his thought. Although not as famous as some of his contemporaries, Dirac’s life and accomplishments are further illustrated through his personal and professional relationships with luminaries such as Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger. Kragh goes some way to giving Dirac and his legacy the attention they deserve. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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One More Cup of Coffee

Tom Pappalardo. Object Publishing, $12.99 trade paper (154p) ISBN 978-0-9983278-0-8

These hilarious shorts are a perfect snarkfest, combining people watching and café criticism with abundant humor. Pappalardo visits coffee emporiums in Northampton, Amherst, and other towns in western Massachusetts to sample brews ranging from fabulous to putrid and to jot his impressions of baristas and customers. He ranges from local coffeehouses to Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks locations, going so far as to reference the noncontroversy of the 2015 red holiday cups; he even experiences coffee in his local public library. In one riff, he rails against the ludicrousness of far-distant coffee pickup counters; elsewhere, he visits a Dunkin’ Donuts dominated by painful country music. Pappalardo’s enjoyment of doughnuts, pie, and other comestibles adds delight to the collection, as does his recording of overheard conversations and scenes. This collection is good for a consistent supply of laughs, regardless of whether readers live in Massachusetts or drink coffee. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Vexed by Devils: Manhood and Witchcraft in Old and New England

Erika Gasser. New York Univ., $35 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4798-3179-1

In her first book, Gasser, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, offers a close read of published accounts of demonic and witchcraft possession in England and New England between the years 1564 and 1700, focusing on the gender dynamics at play in these narratives. Gasser uses five case studies involving both men and women to demonstrate how early modern beliefs about manhood shaped accusations of witchcraft. An accused witch, for example, might be judged guilty if he failed to control the female members of his household, as was the case with John Samuels in Warboys, England, who, along with his wife and daughter, was executed for witchcraft in 1593. Yet if a man exerted too much control­, that was also grounds for conviction, as seen in accounts of the 1692 trial of George Burroughs in Massachusetts. Though regional differences can be found, Gasser argues that demonic and witchcraft possession cases throughout the Anglo-American world functioned as a form of social policing during the early modern period. The book is academic in scope, but anyone seeking a fresh perspective on, and deeper understanding of, such possession accounts will not be disappointed. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul

Jeremiah Moss. Dey Street, $28.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-243969-7

In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, Moss, author of the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, makes a passionate case against “the luxury vision of New York that characterized the Bloomberg years.” The “hyper-gentrification,” as Moss terms it, of the last decade plus has radically transformed New York City. The city is no longer “the unbridled engine of the nation’s progressive culture and creativity, sustaining a diversity of people.” Instead, Moss sees a soulless realm of “luxury condo towers, rampant greed, and suburbanization.” This argument is not a new one, but the book provides an accessible overview of recent efforts to make the Big Apple more appealing to the affluent. Moss is particularly attuned to gentrification’s effects on individual neighborhoods and merchants and argues that the changes are not merely the results of the free market but a deliberate class makeover of the city. He illustrates this point through the example of the 2008 rezoning of Harlem led by Bloomberg’s city-planning director Amanda Burden, who justified the plans to the New York Times with an anecdote about when she attended a concert at the Apollo Theater and couldn’t find a nearby restaurant that appealed to her. Moss also credits pedestrians’ addiction to screens as a factor in their indifference to the changing landscape. Whether or not readers share Moss’s heartfelt belief that New York City has lost its soul, this polemic is likely to stir a lot of emotions. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Stone of Hope: A Memoir

Jim St. Germain, with Jon Sternfeld. Harper, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-0624-5879-7

In his first book, St. Germain, cofounder of the nonprofit group Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, describes growing up in Brooklyn’s violent Crown Heights neighborhood. St. Germain was born in Haiti but moved to the U.S. with his siblings in 2000. Writing with journalist Sternfeld (Crisis Point), he vividly describes the fear and loneliness of life in Brooklyn without his parents, the adjustment to his grandmother’s cramped apartment, and, as he got older, how he negotiated the violent gangster world of the Crips and Bloods. St. Germain longed for a male role model, and concedes that his grandmother, as hard as she tried, couldn’t keep him honest amid the “tight-jeaned girls and hustling corner dudes.” He describes himself as follows: “From a young age, I’d been a social chameleon with a survival mentality.” He began stealing, robbing, dealing drugs, and allowing “the game to suck him in like a vacuum.” At age 15 he was arrested for dealing crack cocaine, but instead of going to prison he was sent to a detention and rehabilitation facility, where he was mentored, educated, and learned to embrace a sense of self-worth. He soon became an advocate for at-risk children. Like Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore, St. Germain’s gritty and self-reflective memoir is an excellent and informative cautionary tale. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

Elaine M. Hayes. Ecco, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-236468-5

Drawing on exclusive interviews with Sarah Vaughan’s friends and former colleagues, jazz-historian Hayes (a former editor of Earshot Jazz magazine) has written a lively and moving portrait of the passionate and tenacious jazz singer. Hayes gracefully narrates Vaughan’s life, from her childhood-church-choir days in 1930s Newark, N.J., and her first major performance at age 18 at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem to her career of singing bebop with Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. Hayes traces Vaughan’s growth as a successful pop artist—which she dictated on her own terms—as well as her failed marriages and her canny ability to make a range of musical styles her own. Vaughan dealt with shady business managers and unscrupulous producers who wanted to shape her in their image, but she held strong and continued to focus on her singing, which, as Hayes astutely explains, represented for her “autonomy, independence, and an opportunity for self-realization... it was her salvation.” Hayes’s blending of the cultural history of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s with his lucid critical insights into Vaughan’s recordings and her life makes this book a detailed look at a fearless singer who constantly moved into new musical territories and left a legacy for younger musicians. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Jon Kukla. Simon & Schuster, $35 (560p) ISBN 978-1-4391-9081-4

In this lively biography, Kukla (Mr. Jefferson’s Women), former director of Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial, recovers Patrick Henry’s foundational role in shaping the American independence movement and, ultimately, the young republic itself. Henry is best known today as an impassioned orator, but Kukla looks beyond the speeches to develop a fuller portrait of Henry as an attorney, statesman, landowner, and society man, highlighting his contributions to key debates around such issues as the Stamp Act and westward expansion. In the book’s descriptions of Henry—including those of his early eloquence in the courtroom, his work on the Declaration of Rights, and his later service as the governor of Virginia—he emerges as a passionate and civic-minded thinker who remained attuned to the needs and concerns of everyday people throughout his career. Drawing on commentary from such contemporaries as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Kukla depicts Henry against the backdrop of 18th-century American life, addressing Henry’s views on slavery, emergent Southern identity, and international trade as well as his resistance toward British rule. Kukla’s fluid prose and careful attention to detail ensure that this biography will appeal to both general readers interested in the founding fathers and scholars interested in learning more about the development of the early republic. Agent: Stephen Hanselman, LevelFiveMedia. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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