One-Minute Book Reviews

August 29, 2013

Evan Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’: Custer at Little Bighorn

Filed under: American History,Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm

Did an undiagnosed case of OCD contribute to a military disaster?

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. By Evan S. Connell. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $13.29, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Americans didn’t always find it easy to cast George Armstrong Custer as an imperialist lackey who attacked Indians justly angered by broken treaties. Evan Connell notes in this rambling history of the Battle of Little Bighorn that much of the public viewed him as a homegrown Siegfried, “a warrior of matchless strength and purity,” for decades after a band of Sioux and Cheyenne and others killed all of his men in perhaps as little as 20 or 30 minutes on June 25, 1876.

Son of the Morning Star lends plausibility to both views of one of the most controversial figures in American military history. Connell’s overconfident Custer led a reckless Seventh Cavalry charge against a vastly larger number of warriors who saw gold miners streaming onto land promised to them by the U.S. government. But his book describes enough of the Indian atrocities that preceded the attack, including the murder and scalping of children, to show why any 19th-century American might have seen the young lieutenant colonel as a noble martyr.

Connell tells Custer’s story with a slack hand absent from Mrs. Bridge, the taut masterpiece that made his reputation. A poem that Walt Whitman wrote right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he says, is “not very good”: “If he had waited, as poets are supposed to do, recollecting in tranquility, he might have done better. Then again, it could have been worse.” Son of the Morning Star has a fair amount of such blather. But Connell has a novelist’s eye for suggestive detail that adds layers of interest to the accounts of the battle typically found in history books. He writes that the impulsive Custer had obsessions that included “washing his hands again and again” while serving in the Army during the Civil War. And although his book doesn’t raise it directly, the question lingers: Did America’s Charge of the Light Brigade result in part from what would today be called an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Best line: No. 1: “Just as each tribe marked its arrows in a distinctive way, so each had a particular style of scalping: diamond-shaped, triangular, square, oval. Sgt. [John] Ryan observed in his memoirs that when the scalped body of a trooper was found the Indian scouts knew immediately which tribe was responsible.” No. 2: “Abdominal wounds usually were fatal, whether or not the blade [of an arrow] could be withdrawn. This fact being known to Indians, they frequently aimed at a soldier’s bellybutton, and it is said that experienced frontiersmen sometimes would wrap a blanket around their middle in hopes of stopping the point or at least diminishing the impact.”

Worst line: No. 1: “In addition to written orders, he seems to have been told verbally to dump the stove.” No. 2: The lines about Whitman quoted in the review above.

Published: 1997

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 13, 2012

‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ – The True Story of an Eccentric Headmaster and His Beloved English Boys’ School

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 am
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A captivating portrait of “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse” 

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School. By Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes. Illustrations by Kath Walker. Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A nun once stuffed young Bruce Springsteen into a garbage can because, a biographer reports, “that’s where you belong.” Such incidents abound in books about American Catholic education in the middle decades of the 20th century and tend to turn them into horror stories or bleak comedies of errors that wrest humor from pain.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is something rare: a book about a Catholic school that is at heart a love story. This captivating history of St Philip’s in South Kensington has its share of anecdotes that might horrify anyone unfamiliar with how common such episodes once were at English boys’ schools – pants-down beatings with a slipper, meals of Spam and watery mashed potatoes that all children had to eat, and cricket games played in frigid weather in just a shirt and itchy wool shorts, with underpants forbidden. The book also offers ample hilarity in its teachers’ efforts to control what a former student called “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse.”

But the eccentric founding headmaster and staff of St Philip’s loved their charges in a way that, to judge by the sparkling anecdotes gathered by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, was largely reciprocated. Richard Tibbits and his “ragbag of untrained teachers” had a quality that rarely surfaces in books about American parochial schools: They were human. American Catholic students of his era were taught mainly by nuns whose flesh-and-blood realities remained a perpetual source of mystery. It was far from uncommon for young children to ask their parents, on first glimpsing their new teachers in black habits and stiff white wimples, “Do nuns go to the bathroom?”

No one would have been likely to ask that question about Tibbits, who resembled “a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig” and was known for “extreme strictness” mixed with “the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls.” Nor would anyone have asked it about his wife, who chain-smoked Benson & Hedges as she presided over the ground-floor corridor in a nylon housecoat.

The Tibbitses attracted teachers with similar quirks. A retired Cockney customs officer, flush with his wife’s money, taught math and boasted, “I could buy the whole lot of you out.” A beautiful Polish princess arrived as a maternity-leave replacement for one of the few women on hand and fell in love with the geography instructor. John Tregear, the French teacher, “wore black boots with red cork high heels and drainpipe trousers.” He leaps to immortality in one of the witty line drawings by Kath Walker that add as much charm to this book as Arthur Watts’s do to E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady.

Richard Tibbits had founded St Philip’s in 1934 as an academy for the 7-to-13-year-old sons of middle and upper class Catholics, many of whom attended Mass at the Brompton Oratory, and his teaching methods suited that group. As late as the mid-1960s, the school had no classes in biology or chemistry because, Tibbits said, “Gentlemen do not study science.” When St Philip’s finally dipped its toe into such fields, its approach might have struck some people as curious – students, for example, learned to make gunpowder. The school had crucifixes and pictures of the Pope on the walls, but it welcomed doubters with a warmth rare in American Catholic schools of its era, where many jokes involved variations on the words “Protestant” and “prostitute.”

For all of this, St Philip’s had high educational and spiritual standards that boys strived to uphold. One former student told Maxtone Graham that at the age of seven he was reading Treasure Island: “You were expected to be good at drawing, good at reading, interested in foreign lands.” The high-achieving the families associated with the school suggest that students met those standards: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes attended St Philip’s, the biographer Antonia Fraser sent her son, Orlando, there, and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mother taught singing. Maxtone Graham has rewarded the trust of those who spoke with her by writing a history distinguished by the perfection of its tone: She writes in the first person, so that her story reads like a memoir, but keeps her focus on St Philip’s. In its casual tone, her book resembles many English schoolboy stories less than Diana Athill’s recent memoirs, including Somewhere Towards the End. Mr Tibbit’s Catholic School might have been called Somewhere Towards the End of the Reign of Richard Tibbits.

St Philip’s began to change after Tibbits’s died in 1967, and the process sped up in the 1980s as a new generation of working mothers dared to suggest improvements the old regime would not have tolerated, such as the purchase of a computer. But the fearless spirit of the school endures in its administrators’ willingness to display on its website this melodious hymn to its idiosyncrasies, a book that shows how much American and other schools lose when they impose enough restrictions to drive away the most gifted and creative teachers. Ninety percent of the teachers at St Philip’s were “certifiable,” the historian  and former student Adam Zamoyski admits. “They wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a school now. But that was often what made them such good teachers.”

Best line: All. An example: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Worst line: None. But a few more details on some would have been welcome. The book notes, for example, that Antonia Fraser was a school mother but not whether she sent all her sons there or just one.

Publication date: 2011

Learn more about the book on the publisher’s websiteMr Tibbits’s Catholic School is available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York. Allison Pearson wrote about the book in the Telegraph.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs. Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 30, 2012

‘One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900’ — Why Are So Many Americans Smashed on the Highways?

Filed under: Current Events,History — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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Margaret Mitchell’s killer and the wide receiver Donté Stallworth are among the people who spent little time in jail for taking a life 

One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900. By Barron H. Lerner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 218 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A paradox of modern life is that Americans stigmatize smokers but have a history of leniency toward drunk drivers who often do more harm. In 1949 Margaret Mitchell died after being hit by the car of an off-duty taxi driver who had alcohol on his breath and 22 previous traffic violations. Hugh Gravitt spent just 10 months and 20 days in jail for killing the author of Gone With the Wind. He also won remarkable sympathy from journalists and others, including the Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who believed that Mitchell had inadvertently dashed into the path of his car. As late as 1989, Sibley wrote that she hoped to see “a book that exonerates the taxi driver.”

Barron Lerner shows in One for the Road that such forbearance remains so common, it may be the rule rather than the exception. In 2009 the Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donté Stallworth killed a jaywalking pedestrian with his car after a night of drinking in Miami Beach. He pled guilty to driving under the influence (DUI) manslaughter and received a 30-day jail sentence (of which he eventually served 24 days). At about the same time, the New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with a hidden gun that he had carried into a nightclub. His sentence: two years for a crime that harmed no one but himself.

The different fates of the wide receivers suggest the contradictions in American views of drunk driving. For decades respected studies have shown that drivers generally begin to become impaired when they have blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. But all 50 states set their legal limit at 0.08%, higher than the level at which the risk of a crash increases. Stricter tests of drunk driving – and penalties for violating them – apply in Australia and much of Asia and Europe. It’s illegal to drive with a BAC above 0.05% in France and Italy and above 0.02% in Norway, Sweden and Russia.

Lerner believes America’s complacency results in part from a clash between basic values: the desire to promote public safety and to protect to individual rights. It also reflects the national love of cars, the popular view of alcoholism as a disease that needs treatment rather than incarceration, and a new focus on the dangers of texting, talking on cell phones, and other forms of “distracted driving.” A few months ago, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline read “Distracted is the new drunk,” as though one danger had replaced another.

One for the Road leaves no doubt that the U.S. could reduce the number of drunk-driving casualties — 13,000–17,000 deaths and countless injuries a year. Higher “sin taxes” on cigarettes have helped to deter smoking and would be likely to have a similar effect on drunk driving. And new forms of technology such as ignition interlock devices could help if more states required them.

But whether the U.S. can muster the political will needed to reduce the casualties is uncertain. Some of the tougher laws on drunk driving that exist today resulted from campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s by the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop or by groups such as RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and Mothers Against Driving (MADD), which have lost much of their clout. That movement appears to have stalled. And a powerful alcohol lobby stands ready to push back if it regained momentum.

Lerner is a doctor who specializes in public health and describes all of this with almost clinical detachment, although he appears to favor changes such as lowering the legal blood alcohol content. And his book is less a history of drunk driving than of the up-and-down national effort to control it. That focus can make for dry reading but provides a welcome counterpoint to the emotionalism that often taints media reports on related personal tragedies. One for the Road reminds us that other public health campaigns, worthy as they are, shouldn’t drive out efforts to reduce alcohol-fueled casualties on the road. As Lerner writes, “Surely it is hard to argue that someone who smokes, especially away from other people, deserves more scorn than someone who drives drunk.”

Best line: In the movie Animal House, four fraternity members wreck a car after a night of drinking. “Although the dean admonishes one of them, warning that ‘Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son,’ the film’s irreverent message was, of course, exactly the opposite.”

Worst line: “Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the ambiguities and contradictions of drunk driving than the stories of two women involved in the founding of MADD: Candy Lightner and Cindi Lamb. Both women lost daughters to drunk drivers, although Lamb’s daughter, Laura, was paralyzed for six years before dying. In the early 1990s, both women went to work for the alcohol industry, the very people who manufactured and vigorously advertised the product that had, indirectly, led to their children’s deaths. As we will see, Lightner and Lamb were not naïve at all and had good reasons for doing what they did.’ That’s a memorable passage, but Lerner doesn’t convince you that their reasons were “good.”

Published: September 2011

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 10, 2012

‘We Band of Angels’: The True Story of Nurses Who Became Prisoners of War

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 am
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A portrait of the first American military women taken captive and imprisoned as a group by an enemy

We Band of Angels: The True Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman. Atria Books, 327 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book can only lift the heart of any woman who regrets seeing her sex represented in print by Lindsay Lohan’s bail hearings and Kim Kardashian’s prenuptial agreement. Few people may remember that American female prisoners of war existed before U.S. Special Operations Forces rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. But women have been falling into enemy hands at least since the Civil War. And the unlucky group includes 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines when Japanese bombs began to fall on American military bases there on Dec. 8, 1941.

Nurses on the Bataan peninsula worked in an open-air field hospital with thousands of beds laid out in rows under a jungle canopy intended to hide it from enemy planes. They sharpened needles on rocks and tried to ease their hunger by frying weeds in cold cream. After Bataan fell, the nurses were evacuated to Corregidor, where they worked in bomb-proof tunnels. When the Allies surrendered, they became prisoners of the Japanese, who held them in internment camps until the end of the war. It should surprise no one that after an initial flurry of attention, Americans lost interest in the group known as the “Angels of Bataan.”

Elizabeth Norman tries not to overplay the heroism of these nurses, but their extraordinary stories speak for themselves. On the evidence of We Band of Angels, these women were not raped or, in the sense in which the word is used today, tortured. But for more than three years they lead torturous lives, enduring with courage and professionalism their fate as “the first group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.” The nurses deserve a secure place beside the men who inspired They Were Expendable, perhaps the best-known story of the battle for Bataan, and other enduring World War II narratives. Their stories also suggest that we need history of all female prisoners of war. Some of the captives might have a tart response to a recent US Weekly cover story on Kim Kardashian entitled “My Divorce Hell.”

Best line: “By all available accounts the presence of women on the battlefield boosted the morale of men.” This fact and much else in We Band of Angels contradict the cliché that women in combat “distract” men.

Worst line: Only 48 of the 77 nurses captured in 1942 and freed in 1945 were alive when Norman began her research for We Band of Angels, and some turned down her requests for an interview. Such realities may help to explain the stilted characterizations of certain nurses, such as Helen Cassiani: “At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile.”

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs, especially those looking for good nonfiction about women or a neglected aspect of military history.

About the author: Norman is a nurse and historian who teaches at New York UniversityWe Band of Angels won the Lavinia L. Dock Award from the American Association for the History for Nursing and other prizes.

Read more about this book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s area.

Furthermore: William Lindsay White tells the story of the retreat from the Philippines from the perspective of a torpedo boat squadron in the book They Were Expendable, made into a movie that starred John Wayne.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Maya Jasanoff’s ‘Liberty’s Exiles’

The latest in a series of posts about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 460 pp., $30), by Maya Jasanoff.

What it is: A Harvard professor’s dense, scholarly history of the diaspora of colonists who stayed loyal to Britain during the American Revolution and fled afterward to countries that included Canada, Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

Why I’m reading it: Liberty’s Exiles was a finalist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, which produces a consistently high-quality shortlist. The book also won the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

How much I’ve read: The first 55 pages, a 34-page chapter on loyalists who fled to Jamaica, and more, about 100 pages in all.

Quote from the book: Anglo-Americans in Jamaica “went to appalling extremes” to protect their authority over black slaves, including many brought into the country by loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War: “A dispassionate record of Jamaica’s everyday sadism survives in the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, whose 37-year-old career on the island ended with his death in 1786. By then, Thistlewood had scored tens of thousands of lashes across slaves’ bare skin, practically flaying some of his victims alive. He had had sex with 138 women (by his own tally), almost all of them slaves. He stuck the heads of executed runaways on poles; he had seen cheeks slit and ears cut off. He routinely meted out punishments such as the following, for a slave caught eating sugarcane: ‘had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.’ Such incredible barbarity symptomized the panic that pervaded Jamaican white society: the fear that the black majority might rise up and slaughter them in their beds.”

Comments: Liberty’s Exiles has the redundant phrase “wealthy heiress” in the first sentence. Its author also has an unfortunate lust for the adjectival use of  “very”: “the very fact,” “their very names,” and “the very bosom of American homes.”  Among adverbial uses, she gives us “the very same ships,” “the very same rooms,” and “the very first signer.” But I’ve found the book worthwhile for its overview of loyalists in exile and its expansive portraits of some, including the young wife and mother Elizabeth Johnston, who lost her three-month-old daughter to smallpox in Jamaica.

Published: February 2011 (Knopf hardcover). March 2012 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Read more about Liberty’s Exiles in a review in the Spectator.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

 © 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 6, 2010

The Longest Assault: Antony Beevor’s ‘D-Day: The Battle for Normandy’

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
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More than 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action in World War II, more people than died in the German bombings of England

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. By Antony Beevor. Penguin, 608 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

D-Day has inspired the literary equivalent of an amphibious assault landing. Cornelius Ryan set the tone with The Longest Day, a modern classic of narrative nonfiction that has helped to shape how generations of Americans have seen the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Stephen Ambrose, Max Hastings and others later wrote widely praised books about the campaign that led to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.

But before the publication of D-Day, no major book about the battle for Normandy had appeared in more than twenty years. In that time, many participants in the invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, had died and left diaries and letters that found their way to historical archives. Antony Beevor makes superb use of newly available primary sources in an international bestseller that gets its first American paperback edition this month.

D-Day is nearly twice as long and much more scholarly than The Longest Day, and it makes heavier use of military terminology decoded in an up-front glossary. It also takes a harsher view of some of the participants in the invasion, especially Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British officer who commanded the ground troops.

But like Ryan, Beevor has a gift for telling a story through the accretion of humanizing details. In his first pages, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, “smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day” as he ponders whether the weather will permit an invasion (and after giving the go-ahead, playing Checkers in his trailer at Southwick Park in England). Later Beevor introduces a British liaison officer and future 6th Marquess of Bath “who had gained a reputation for eccentricity because of some of his trips through German lines and his habit of leading two ducks around on a leash.” Near the end of the book, as the Allies enter Paris, French women stay up all night to make flags and clothes in patriotic colors: “One woman, who made an American flag, cut all the stars individually from an old dress.”

Unlike many accounts of the Normandy invasion, D-Day does not end with the battles for the beaches and nearby towns but follows the fighting to the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. Beevor shows the grievous toll the campaign took on the Allies and Germans and on French noncombatants — in civilian casualties, ruined cities, suicides or self-inflicted wounds, and cases of “battle shock,” or what is today called post-traumatic stress disorder. He makes clear that even the uninjured faced terrible psychological ordeals. Soldiers had to scrape the unidentified remains of tank crews off the inside of burned-out turrets. Sailors carried the dead on litters to a ship’s refrigerator, “a solution which was not popular with the cooks.”  Victims of battle shock would start running around in circles and weeping “or even wander out in a trance into an open field and start picking flowers as the shells explored.”

Beevor’s great theme and strongest argument is that the heavy Allied bombing and artillery fire liberated France at the expense of Normandy:

“Altogether 19,890 civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy and an even larger number seriously injured. This was on top of the 15,000 French killed and 19,000 injured during the preparatory bombing for Overlord in the first five months of 1944. It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.”

For all this, the Normandy campaign inspired epic heroism on and off the battlefield, and D-Day includes accounts of exceptional stoicism or selflessness. A staff member at one field hospital expressed amazement at how uncomplaining the wounded were: “It’s such a paradox, this war, which produces the worst in man, and also raises him to the summits of self-sacrifice, self-denial and altruism.” That contradiction may be as old as war itself, but Beevor shows how – for both sides – it showed itself in unique and important ways amid apple orchards and cornfields scattered with poppies.

Best line: Some American soldiers learned conversational French from language books produced by the Army: “Supposedly useful gambits were also provided in daily lessons published by [the military newspaper] Stars and Stripes, such as the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’”

Worst line: “In their Normandy battles, the Poles had lost 135 officers and 2,192 men.” It may be military jargon, but the implication that officers aren’t men sounds odd.

Published: 2009 (Viking hardcover), Sept. 28, 2010 (Penguin paperback).

About the author: Beevor won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the leading international prize for nonfiction, for his Stalingrad. In an interview posted on YouTube, he talks about topics that include how he used historical sources for D-Day.

Furthermore: D-Day shows the contributions of nations often slighted in accounts of the Normandy campaign, especially Canada. Beevor writes of the pilots for Allied air attacks in the Mortain sector in France: “It was almost an aerial foreign legion, with British pilots, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Norwegians, Poles, an Argentinian and even a German Jew called Klaus Hugo Adam (later the film-maker, Sir Ken Adam).” A Washington Post review by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, posted in full on Amazon, tells more about the book.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 13, 2009

The True Story of a Girl Captured by Mohawks in 1704 During the Slaughter of Colonists in Deerfield in 1704 – John Demos’s ‘The Unredeemed Captive’

Why did young Eunice Williams stay with Indians who had murdered her mother?

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. By John Demos. Vintage 336 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1704 a French and Indian war party slaughtered dozens of men, women, and children in a predawn attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Recent histories have sanitized the incident known as the Deerfield Massacre, calling it “the Raid on Deerfield.”

The term “raid” hardly fits the events described in this memorable true story of Eunice Williams, who lived through the terror that was masterminded by the French but largely carried out by Mohawks and other Indians. Eunice was a 7-year-old Puritan minister’s daughter when she was kidnapped in the attack – oops, sorry, “raid”! – on Deerfield at about 4 a.m. on February 29. Her mother died on a subsequent forced march to Canada, killed by an Indian who “slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” a son wrote. Her father and siblings were eventually released.

But Eunice stayed with the Indians, one of whom she married, for puzzling reasons: Was she a prisoner or a willing expatriate? The Yale University historian John Demos explores the question in this fascinating finalist for 1994 National Book Award (inexplicably described on the cover as the winner of the prize).

Enough gaps remain in the record that Demos has to tease out answers, partly by exploring relations between the English, French, and Indians in 18th-century America. (“Some things we have to imagine.”) So The Unredeemed Captive isn’t a Jon Krakauer tale with muskets. But its story matters for more than its complex portrayal of colonial life. Demos doesn’t take the fashionable path of romanticizing American Indians, but he doesn’t spare the Puritans, either. He notes that in our era, “fundamentalism” has become a shorthand term for “radical Islamists, evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, militant Hindus” and others. “By the same token,” he writes, “it’s not a long stretch to characterize the early Puritans, surrounding and including the Williams family, as ‘fundamentalists’ themselves; witness their sense of utter certainty in what they were about, their intolerance of difference and dissent, their zeal for conversion of infidel natives, and their readiness to fight, die, and kill in the cause of advancing their faith.”

Best line: “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?,” a rhetorical question asked by
Rev. John Williams after the massacre.

Worst line: Demos tells much of Eunice’s story in the present tense, which works less well than the past tense he uses to give it context.

Recommendation? An excellent choice for history books clubs and others that like serious nonfiction.

Editor: Ashbel Green

Published: 1994 (Knopf hardcover), 1995 (Vintage paperback).

Read John Demos’s summary of the Deerfield Massacre in American Heritage. Several Deerfield museums have an excellent interactive Web site that shows a representation of the attack and tells more about the people mentioned in this review.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 8, 2009

May 8, 1945 — VE Day in New York — When Broadway Was Ten Inches Deep In Fabric Thrown by Garment Workers

Filed under: History,News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:26 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

My father was an English-German interpreter in prisoner-of-war camps during World War II, and two of the questions I most regret not asking him were, “How did you celebrate the end of the war? And how did the prisoners?” Historian David Stafford tells how some Americans reacted to the German surrender in his Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II (Little, Brown, 2007), an account of the final days of the war and its immediate aftermath. He notes that New Yorkers started celebrating the day before Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, because news of the surrender leaked before the official announcement:

“Office workers deluged the streets with tons of ticker tape, scrap paper, old telephone books, playing cards and anything else they could find. They were joined by the garment trade, whose workers threw not paper but bales and bolts of cloth of all kinds into the streets. The New York Times reported that ‘every possible remnant in every possible shade and hue turned and squirmed in the thin morning sunlight’ until Broadway was ten inches deep in fabric.’ Boats on the East River sounded their whistles while on land the cabbies honked madly.”

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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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