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Book Reviews

Fall Books

May 2024
5min read

 First Family

Abigail and John Adams

By Joseph J. Ellis


Best-selling author of American Sphinx and Founding Brothers, Ellis admires the most prolific political couple in American history. John and Abigail Adams raised four children (losing two others) and produced 1,200 letters. Combining historical biography, political history, and quotidian romance, First Family is both learned and chatty. Ellis arranges the letters into a chronological double portrait as he mines them to explore the nature of this marriage and the structure of its success, which lay in these soul mates’ intimacy in every realm: the intellectual, emotional, and physical. In his last years, Adams tried to organize his papers. Ellis writes, “These letters, spread all around him, were his ticket into the American pantheon of the original postmythical hero. And he was the only one who would be admitted with his wife alongside him.” (Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95)


JFK Day by Day

A Chronicle of the 1,036 Days of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency

By Terry Golway and Les Krantz


Honoring the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s election, JFK Day by Day compresses his thousand-plus days into an overview no larger than four issues of this magazine. As a scrapbook it succeeds in projecting the helter-skelter of events from the enduring—“President Kennedy today ordered a ban on virtually all trade with Cuba”—to the fleeting—“dedicates a dam in South Dakota before spending the night at Yosemite.” This eclectic volume, which employs a half-dozen typefaces, manages to survey the most photogenic White House without including the most iconic photographs. Though inevitably repetitive and weakened by an inadequate index, it is a paean to the march of history in its counterpoint of the momentous and the minuscule. (Running Press, 288 pages, $27.50)


The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith


Mark Twain must have found writing autobiography as easy as giving up cigars, because he did it about as often, accumulating “some thirty or forty . . . false starts.” Five years before his death he found “the right way” embodied in this edition, which aims to be definitive and faithful to his ultimate intentions—including the caveat that it appear no less than 100 years after his death. It is also long: more than 700 pages, two-thirds of them scholarly discourse, appendixes, and notes. Certainly this impressively academic work will serve scholars; yet the rest of us can read 260 pages (in tiny type) of pure Twain at his typically discursive, rambling, and droll. “When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.” Recalling his mother’s persuasive chiding when he complained about a noisy slave, “She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work.” The bard of Hannibal still has much to say. (University of California Press, 743 pages, $34.95)


Native American Son

The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

By Kate Buford


Often called the greatest athlete of his generation (or even century), Jim Thorpe was an American phenom. He revolutionized professional football, starred in the majors, won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, mugged his way through bad Hollywood movies, died broke in a trailer, and remained vivid in Americans’ memories for another half century. Half Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma, he sparked controversy like rodeos raise dust. The Olympics’ governors discovered he wasn’t an amateur and stripped his medals (which were restored posthumously), and after his death a pair of  Pennsylvania towns renamed themselves Jim Thorpe in hopes that his grave would draw tourists. (Now his son is suing to repatriate his remains.) More important, a professional biographer has proved what sound research and skillful writing can do: reveal a singular man, animate the times of his life, and illuminate the complexities of our world today, which he helped to shape. (Knopf, 448 pages, $35)


The Fiery Trial

Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

By Eric Foner


Lincoln’s enigmatic relationship with American slavery receives an incisive treatment in this new book by one of our most accomplished and versatile historians. Having defined the agenda of Reconstruction studies at the end of the 1980s, Foner here turns to the tense political climate that prevailed in the years leading up to the nation’s cataclysmic Civil War. He traces the tangled evolution of Lincoln’s antislavery views from the future president’s early days in nonslaveholding Illinois to the conclusion of his presidency, when he planned to extend the vote to blacks after the war. While Lincoln often navigated an antislavery middle ground, Foner demonstrates that his opinions largely followed the political terrain mapped out by abolitionist radicals such as Senator Charles Sumner. By situating Lincoln firmly within this historical context, Foner has contributed a masterful work to the growing number of political biographies that illuminate an era by examining the opinions of an individual.(W. W. Norton, 448 pages, $29.95)



The Killing of Crazy Horse

By Thomas Powers


Writing about Crazy Horse, who led the infamous attack on Gen. George A. Custer atthe LittleBig Horn, remains difficult largely because the Oglala war chief was intensely private and taciturn. Unlike other famous Sioux leaders such as Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, for instance, he never sat for a photograph. Powers goes a long way toward unraveling the knot of vendetta and misunderstanding that led to Crazy Horse’s tragic murder in federal custody at the Red Cloud Agency in 1877. The author details the intricacies of Sioux culture and the challenges posed to the great chiefs who were forced to leave it behind, balancing them against the lives of Gen. George Crook, who ordered Crazy Horse’s arrest, and scout Frank Grouard, whose alleged mistranslation of the chief’s words stirred the general’s suspicion. (Knopf, 608 pages, $30)


Louisa May Alcott 

A Personal Biography

By Susan Cheever


When in 1868 Louisa May Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles suggested she write a book for girls, she balked and delayed, but at last composed her masterpiece, Little Women, which endures as one of the most beloved children’s works of the English language. Modern women identify with Jo March, the book’s spirited, literary heroine, as she struggles for recognition in a man’s world. Cheever, author of American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau (Simon & Schuster 2006), presents a concise and readable portrait of the woman behind the March girls, emphasizing the contrast between the author’s life and the idyll she created: Alcott’s difficult childhood, constantly on the move after the failure of yet another of her father’s schools; her formative friendships with (and girlish crushes on) transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and her nursing service in the Union hospital following the Battle of Fredericksburg, which lent maturity to her writing, transforming her from an author of lurid melodrama into a keen observer of truth and human nature. (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26)


The Man Who Sold America

The Amazing (But True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation 

of the Advertising Century

By Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz


Born at the right time (1880), possessing the right genes, driven by the right choices, Albert Lasker became the grand vizier of mercantile America, then a prince of glitz and, surprisingly, a pioneer of philanthropy. He launched himself in Chicago on the cusp of an era when industry, transportation, consumerism, and mass media swarmed like vines up Jack’s magic beanstalk. A consummate salesman, marketing genius, and alchemist of popular trends, Lasker masterminded advertising per se, the matrix that bound the new world order. While his achievements (and ad campaigns) sound like Guinness Book of Records stuff, a different kind of genius makes this book an engrossing page-turner. Composed like a mosaic and paced like a decathlon, the lucid narrative projects a titan with clay feet up to the hips (Lasker tilted with booze, cards, and depression). This is a model biography, relating a notable 

life, evoking an age, and narrating a history of the tide of commercialism during America’s maelstrom century. (Harvard Business Review Press, 435 pages, $27.95)


Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad

By Derek Hayes


The latest in the UC Press series of historical atlases, this handsome volume delivers nearly 400 railroad maps along with a veritable feast of vintage ads, posters, and photographs, providing an experience for the railroad buff that’s second only to running a hand over a real fire-tube boiler or hearing a train whistle. Hayes’s informative text covers the growth of famed rail lines such as the Baltimore & Ohio, the Mohawk & Hudson, and the Atlantic & Pacific; the triumph of the transcontinental railroad; and rail transit’s indispensable contribution to military mobilization during World War II. Although, as the book points out, government-sponsored passenger train service has not retained its once-great popularity, this atlas reveals how deeply the railroad 

has figured in the growth of the United States and Canada. 

(University of California Press, $39.95, 224 pages)

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