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Book Reviews

Holiday Gift Special

May 2024
6min read

 Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

by Richard Beeman

(Random House)

This timely book offers a thoughtful history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which produced one of the most astounding and important documents in history. The book’s central theme reveals a truth too often forgotten: that the key to finding enough common ground to unite and move forward lies in compromise. Giving the major players their due, Beeman demonstrates that, as one reviewer wrote, “compromisers may not make great heroes but they do make great democracies.” Reviewed in the summer issue.


D-Day: The Battle for Normandy

by Antony Beevor


In one thick and dense yet readable volume, a British historian re-creates a nearly minute-by-minute account of the invasion that was the beginning of the end of World War II.


The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’s Art

during World War II

by Ilaria Dagnini Brey

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This portrait of unlikely heroes (art scholars and such) relates a great story of World War II: that American military forces could fight to win while at the same time minimizing damage done to the world’s cultural treasures.


The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

by Douglas Brinkley


Our “naturalist president” bestrides the earth in this colossal biography focusing on TR’s crusade to preserve the wonders of our natural world in national parks. Reviewers from coast to coast compared the book to the man himself: brash, bold, brilliant, and flawed. Adapted for a feature article in the fall issue.


Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

by John Milton Cooper Jr.


A visionary in foreign affairs and a bigot at home, Woodrow Wilson was a quiet revolutionary who espoused both internationalism and new federal regulatory activity—initiatives that only came into their own with the New Deal and the end of World War II. This weighty biography is the best look at Wilson in more than two decades.



by Dave Eggers


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a decent chap named Abdulrahman Zeitoun set out to rescue neighbors and feed stranded pets. Of Syrian birth, swarthy complexion, and Muslim faith, he was seized at gunpoint by members of Homeland Security, locked in a Guantanamo-like cage, and held incommunicado for weeks in a real-life nightmare out of Kafka. It’s a gripping tale of an American tragedy within a natural disaster.


The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers

by Thomas Fleming


Behind every one of America’s early leaders was at least one woman, and the Founding Mothers were as varied as their various husbands, sons, and lovers. One interesting common theme in this collective biography: how many of the men in question were jilted before finding true love. Adapted for a feature article in the fall issue.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

by Lori D. Ginzberg

(Hill & Wang)

If she hadn’t lived, someone would have had to invent her. Often glossed over as simply one militant champion of women’s suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a woman of parts: an intellectual first and foremost, an abolitionist who could sound like a racist, and a champion of equal rights who could match any snob in hauteur.


Abigail Adams

by Woody Holton

(Free Press)

We’ve long guessed that she was a woman to be reckoned with in her own right—not just as John’s wife—and this full biography does her justice, allowing her voice to “radiate off the page,” as one reviewer wrote. Ahead of her time, she advocated equal education for women and even plotted ways to circumvent laws and customs that hobbled her sex.


The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election

by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson


No matter how recent the campaign and how fully it was covered, these two veteran reporters shed new light on its events and players in this definitive chronicle. Proffering precious nuggets of fact and insight gleaned from first-hand glimpses and confidential memos, they have written a comprehensive and exciting account of how the inevitable turned turtle and the unexpected became fact.


1959: The Year Everything Changed

by Fred Kaplan


The political scientist, social observer, and Slate columnist more or less stumbled on the thesis that 1959 marked a huge cusp. It was, after all, the year when the following occurred: On the Road, the pill, the microchip, the first official U.K. publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Herman Kahn’s lectures on thermonuclear war, Castro’s takeover in Cuba. . . . Maybe not everything changed, but Kaplan’s concatenation offers a wonderful array of pivot points.


The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name

by Toby Lester

(Free Press)

Long before Google and MapQuest, kings and explorers tried to comprehend one of the great mysteries: the shape of the Earth—and how to capture that great three-dimensional conundrum on two-dimensional parchment.


An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General

James Wilkinson

by Andro Linklater


A general in Washington’s army before he was 20, James Wilkinson was evidently a man

without loyalty—arguably to America’s benefit when he betrayed his superior, the traitor Benedict Arnold. Later in his duplicitous and far-ranging life, he swore allegiance to the king of Spain. Long neglected by our historians, he now gets his due from this highly respected British scholar. Reviewed in the fall issue.


Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

by James McManus

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A professional gambler, McManus offers an interpretive history of America’s “national card game.” The first chapter alone is worth the cover price: an essay on poker and American politics. Nixon financed his political debut with World War II poker winnings; Illinois legislator Obama made his first friends among political adversaries in a weekly game; Khrushchev and Kennedy avoided Armageddon over Cuba because both understood the art of bluffing.


A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

by Robert W. Merry

(Simon & Schuster)

Arguably our most influential one-term president and one of the most commonly ignored, Polk was elected in 1844 and expanded the nation by a third through war and diplomacy. Making good a journalist’s term “Manifest Destiny,” he expanded U.S. territory like no one since Jefferson had bought Louisiana, grabbing the Pacific Northwest from Britain, annexing Texas, and winning the Mexican War to take the Southwest and California.


National Geographic Atlas of the Civil War

(National Geographic Society)

No surprise here: a visual treasure trove of contemporaneous maps and new illustrations with densely informative text blocks that combine to provide a comprehensive account of the Civil War from a geographic perspective.


Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath

by Michael Norman

and Elizabeth M. Norman

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This is a remarkably gripping narrative told with lucidity and feeling, featuring copious research, exacting scholarship, and moving illustrations by Ben Steele, an American GI who survived one of the most heinous atrocities of World War II. Adapted for a feature article in the summer issue.


War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier

by John F. Ross


Rogers invented special operations warfare during the French and Indian War, later crossed egos with Washington, switched sides, and became the redcoat who hanged Nathan Hale. A complex character—hero, knave, prickly patriot—he gets the complex biography he deserves. The Times noted that the author, a writer of “impressive polymathy” (and this magazine’s executive editor) “expounds just as fluently on geology and the coffeehouses of Samuel Johnson–era London as he does on Rogers’s innovative war-making.” Adapted for a feature article in the summer issue.


Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

by Neil Sheehan

(Random House)

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author reveals and honors the forgotten general who championed interballistic missile systems over bombers and thus helped to create a nuclear stalemate between the United States and the USSR. Sheehan, who chronicled the Vietnam debacle in A Bright Shining Lie, now writes a revealing and counterintuitive study of how the Cold War ended without mutual annihilation.


No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864

by Richard Slotkin

(Random House)

Besieging Petersburg, the gateway to Richmond, Union engineers cunningly blew a huge hole in Lee’s line through which a force of “Negro” troops attacked. But the crater’s size swallowed the men, a mutual massacre ensued, and the black soldiers were not only slaughtered but scapegoated. Slotkin reports the battle in detail and places it within its larger context of the Civil War, slavery, and emancipation. Reviewed in the fall issue.


The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of  Cornelius Vanderbilt

by T. J. Stiles


At his death in 1877, railroad titan and shipping “Commodore” Vanderbilt owned one-ninth of all the dollars in circulation—on paper at least. Fittingly, as the richest man of his time, he was the first to understand the power of paper over specie and precious metals as the vital medium of modern business, the realm he virtually commanded as an economic force unto himself.


Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism

by Woden Teachout

(Basic Books)

Since Betsy Ross put down her thimble, the American flag has meant different things to multitudes—just as the very concept of patriotism projects a different vision in every beholder’s eye. Teachout reports how the flag has been championed by hosts of opposites: immigrants and immigration opponents, abolitionists and segregationists, hawks and doves of every persuasion—proof positive of the protean nature of liberty and free speech.


Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

by Larry Tye

(Random House)

Possibly the greatest pitcher ever, Satchel Paige first made his name in the “Negro” leagues, then belatedly played in the majors after Jackie Robinson broke the color bar. Armed with an unmatched fastball and micron accuracy, he had a mouth to rival Yogi Berra’s and an imagination to match Disney’s—all of which combined to make him a lively legend.


A. Lincoln: A Biography

by Ronald C. White Jr.

(Random House)

Welcomed among the flood of new works published during the Great Emancipator’s bicentennial year, this magisterial life was widely regarded as the best biography of Lincoln in over a decade. Further, White’s approach was original: unearthing a wealth of new documents, including Lincoln’s diaries and notes jotted to himself, he traces the course of Lincoln’s intellect and moral compass as the man’s mind grew, changed, and matured.


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815

by Gordon S. Wood

(Oxford University Press)


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