One-Minute Book Reviews

May 19, 2008

Max Hastings Reconsiders the Endgame of the War in the Pacific in ‘Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45′

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:31 pm
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Remembering the era when General Douglas MacArthur wouldn’t agree to a government request to change his famous remark on leaving the Philippines from “I shall return” to “We shall return”

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. By Max Hastings. Knopf, 615 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

One of the paradoxes of the wave of historical revisionism now sweeping the United States is that while many Americans vow “never to forget” the Holocaust, they turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II. The reasons for the selective memory are complex and range from the failings of schools to the possibility that – as some have psychologists have suggested – the human mind can only bear to think about so much evil.

But anyone who wants to understand the scope of savagery might start with Retribution, the British journalist Max Hastings’s latest work of military history. One virtue of this immensely readable book is that it blends with great skill the approaches that have been called “top-down” and “bottom-up” history. Retribution has memorable portraits of military leaders such as Chester Nimitz, Curtis LeMay and Douglas MacArthur (who objected when the Office of War Information wanted to change for public consumption his famous “I shall return” to “We shall return”). And Hastings’s analyses of the decisions of generals, admirals and statesmen lead to many persuasive conclusions – most notably, that dropping the atomic bombs resulted fewer deaths than would have occurred if the war had continued apace.

Amid such glimpses of those at the top, Retribution shows the shattering effects of the war on the men and women at the bottom, those who survived the firebombing of Tokyo or fought in Burma, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere. Stories of unimaginable suffering are leavened with lighter moments. Families could send parcels to Allied prisoners of war, but the Japanese seldom delivered them. So a U.S. artillery captain held captive on Luzon was thrilled to get a package from home “which he found wonderfully sensibly chosen: a carton of cigarettes, a sweater, a jar of candy and some vitamin pills.”

But for many Americans, the most startling parts of this book are likely to involve the accounts of Japanese brutality to the 100,000 Allied POWs and others. These atrocities go beyond what anyone might expect from such popular books as The Railway Man, Eric Lomax’s story of working in captivity on the Burma-Siam railroad – to say nothing of movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Bridge on the River Kwai.

“There were so many cases of arbitrary beheadings, clubbings and bayonetings in different parts of the empire that it is impossible to dismiss these as unauthorized initiatives by individual officers and men,” Hastings writes. Some of the sadism recalls Josef Mengele’s experiments in Nazi death camps: Eight American airmen were killed by unanesthetized vivisecton carried out in front of medical students at a Japanese hospital. Hastings disagrees with Japanese and other observers who say that it is time to put aside old grievances about such atrocities:

“Germany has paid almost $6 billion to 1.5 million victims of the Hitler era. Austria has paid $400 million to 132,000 people. By contrast, modern Japan goes to extraordinary lengths to escape any admission of responsibility, far less of liability for compensation, towards its wartime victims.”

Hastings ascribes the Japanese position partly to a tendency to excuse — “even to ennoble” — the shameful actions of parents and grandparents. Whatever the reason for what he calls “denial,” it can hardly help Japan’s relations with the world. America found one kind of retribution on the deck of the battleship Missouri, but another kind has clearly eluded its former prisoners of war and others.

Best lines: On submarine crews: “Freshmen had to master the delicate art of using submarine toilets inside a pressure hull: ‘It was hard to flush below a hundred feet and keep a clean face,’ wrote one.” On Tom Brokaw–esque romanticizing: “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times. This seems inapt. The people of World War II may have adopted different fashions and danced to different music from us, but human behavior, aspirations and fears do not alter much. It is more appropriate to call them, without jealousy, ‘the generation to which the greatest things happened.’”

Worst lines: “In the first campaigns, nations which are victims rather than initiators of aggression enjoy scanty choices.” Does anyone “enjoy” having few choices? And it’s painful to see a journalist as good as Hastings using “task” as a verb: “One of Vedder’s corpsman had been tasked to carry his instruments ashore …”

Sample chapter titles: “The British in Burma,” “America’s Return to the Philippines,” “MacArthur on Luzon,” “Blood Miniature: Iwo Jima,” “Australians: ‘Bludging’ and ‘Mopping Up,’ “Okinawa,” “Mao’s War,” “The Bombs.”

Editor: Robert Lacey (HarperCollins, UK), Ashbel Green (Knopf)

Published: March 2008 www.aaknopf.com. This book was called Nemesis in Britain.

Recommendation? Highly recommended to history book clubs and fans of military history. This book could also be a great Father’s Day gift for a father who likes history or military lore.

Read an excerpt: Go to www.aaknopf.com and search for “Retribution.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Retribution was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/19.

Furthermore: Hastings calls Retribution a counterpart to his earlier Armageddon, which describes the war against Germany in 1944–1945. He has been a foreign correspondent, the editor of The Daily Telegraph and Journalist of the Year in Britain.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

May 15, 2007

Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’: How Two Men Helped to End a Fearsome Epidemic

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:27 am
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The fascinating true story of a doctor and clergyman who defied the establishment view that cholera was an airborne – not waterborne — disease

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By Steven Johnson. Riverhead, 299 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Did you know that the doctor who gave chloroform to a grateful Queen Victoria during childbirth also helped to end a cholera epidemic? I didn’t. And details like this abound in Steven Johnson’s fascinating history of how two men took on the medical establishment after cholera erupted in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map reads at times like a cross between The Hot Zone with The Professor and the Madman, a medical horror story set in a gaslit city that bred disease and superstition. Johnson begins, unpromisingly, with a dozen pages on the difficulty of human waste disposal in a metropolis that had two million residents. But he quickly gets on top of his story of an epidemic that began when a mother tossed out a slop bucket in which she had soaked a sick baby’s diapers. From then on his book moves swiftly until he tries in the last chapter to extrapolate from cholera to modern threats such as suicide bombers and nuclear winter. This polemical leap is ultimately much less persuasive than what has come before it – a well-told tale of how a doctor and an Anglican curate changed the view of one of the world’s most feared diseases.

Best line: “At the height of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, a thousand Londoners would often die of the disease in a matter of weeks – out of a population that was a quarter of the size of modern New York. Imagine the terror and panic if a biological attack killed four thousand otherwise healthy New Yorkers over a twenty-day period. Living amid cholera in 1854 was like living in a world where tragedies on that scale happened week after week, year after year.”

Worst line: Any line that shows Johnson’s promiscuous use of the word “irony,” which he turns into a one-size-fits-all substitute for “sadly,” “oddly,” “coincidentally” or “paradoxically.” For example: “The sad irony of his argument for the waterborne theory of cholera is that he had all the primary medical explanations in place by the winter of 1848–1849, and yet they fell on deaf ears for almost a decade.” That is a sad fact, not a sad “irony.” Would you write, “The sad irony of Jan Harayda’s post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade level is that she did this on November 16, 2006, and yet it fell on deaf ears for almost five months and Albom continued to sell books at a frightening rate”?

Recommended if … you like popular history, especially books about the history of science or medicine, such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

Furthermore: Johnson also wrote Everything Bad Is Good for You.

Editor: Sean McDonald

Published: October 2006

Links: www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #1: The 2007 Biography Winner, Debby Applegate’s ‘The Most Famous Man in America’

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Book Reviews,Christianity,History,Pulitzer Prizes,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners of the Pulitzers and other book awards deserved their honors. This site reviewed the 2007 Caldecott Medalist, David Wiesner’s Flotsam, on Jan. 22 and the 2007 Newbery Medalist, Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky on Feb. 19 (reading group guide posted on Feb. 22).

Title: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. By Debby Applegate. Doubleday hardcover, 527 pp., $27.95, and Three Leaves paperback, 560 pp., $16.95.

What it is: The biography of the most famous preacher of the 19th century, who was also an abolitionist and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Winner of … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography

Was this one of those book awards that make you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the editor or publisher had pornographic home videos of all of them? No

Worthy of a major award? Yes

Comments: This is a terrific biography I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t won a Pulitzer. I intended to read only a few chapters and include the book in the “Books I Didn’t Finish” category on this site. But I became swept up quickly in its story of a witty and lovable but flawed preacher and the remarkable Beecher family. Near the end of his life Henry Ward Beecher became entangled in a sex scandal that led to a lurid trial and adds interest at a point when many biographies lose steam. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from this book was an understanding of how the Puritan focus on a wrathful deity gave way to the view of God as a loving presence that exists today. Debby Applegate makes a good case that Beecher was the prime mover in this tectonic shift. She writes in a conversational tone that keeps this book from becoming stuffy but occasionally leads to a phrase that sounds anachronistic in context, such as: “Henry’s first two years as a minister had been a mixed bag.”

Best line: See below.

Worst line: The title of Chapter 12, which comes from a popular rumor: “I Am Reliably Assured That Beecher Preaches to Seven or Eight of His Mistresses Every Sunday Evening.” This might be the best line if it matched the text. But on one page Applegate quotes a man as saying that “Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening.” Two pages later, she quotes another man who says, “I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday.” The chapter title seems to be a corruption of the two quotes. I’m inclined to cut Applegate some slack on this one, because she may have found many versions of this rumor, but not the copy editor whose job it was to catch such discrepancies.

Recommended if … you like Civil War–era history and are looking for book with wider scope than Manhunt, which I also liked. Highly recommended to history book clubs.

Editor: Gerald Howard

Published: June 2006 (Doubleday hardcover), April 2007 (Three Leaves paperback).

Links: You can read the first chapter and watch a C-SPAN interview with Applegate at www.themostfamousmaninamerica.com.

Furthermore: Debby Applegate has taught at Yale and Wesleyan universities. Her book was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 12, 2007

Robert Lacey’s ‘Great Tales From English History’ Series

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,History,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:18 am

Brief and lively essays about Winston Churchill, “Mad” King George III, Florence Nightingale and others who helped to define Britain to itself and to the world

Great Tales From English History (Book 3): Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More. By Robert Lacey. Little, Brown, 305 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Love history but lack the time to read an entire book on John Wilkes Booth or the conquest of polio? Forgotten so much of what you learned in a Western Civ course that you need to review some of it?

Consider picking up Robert Lacey’s engaging “Great Tales From English History” series, which consists of three volumes you can read in any order. Each book has 60 or so lively essays on a person or event that helped to define a year or era in Britain.

Some of the most interesting entries in the latest book deal with people little-known to most Americans, such as Edith Cavell, who ran a World War I nurses’ school in Belgium and used it to shelter British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. (She kept her diary sewn into a footstool so it didn’t fall into the hands of Germans but was accidentally betrayed and executed by a firing squad in her nurse’s uniform.) But Lacey is also adept at showing you how much you don’t know about major figures like Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson, Florence Nightingale and “Mad” King George III.

Lacey’s essays are short – about 1,000 words in an easy-on-the-eyes font – and take only a few minutes to read. So the “Great Tales” books could be ideal for a nightstand or for anyone who, say, spends a lot of time waiting in a car to pick up a child or spouse. Even better for some of us, Lacey has said that he hopes to expand the series to include colorful episodes from American history.

Best line: This one about Queen Victoria is typical: “Of the many photographs of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, only one shows her smiling.”

Worst line: Lacey lives in London and occasionally omits facts that, though perhaps unnecessary in Britain, would have helped here. In his essay “Voice of the People” he suggests that Churchill’s career-ending defeat in the 1945 election resulted partly from his inflammatory campaign remark that “Some form of Gestapo” would be needed to enforce the policies of the Labour Party. Lacey doesn’t say that Churchill belonged at the time to the Conservative Party. And Churchill was such a notorious party-switcher (from Conservative to Liberal to Conservative and running in one election as a self-described “constitutional anti-socialist”) that this information would have been useful.

Recommended if … you’re looking for light and diverting history, not heavy scholarship, or planning a vacation in England and want to learn about the people and events you’ll find honored on monuments. A “Great Tales” book could also make an excellent gift for a teenager who loves history or may major in it in college.

Furthermore: Other volumes in this series are Great Tales from English History (Book 1): The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More (Little, Brown 2004 and 2007 reprint) and Great Tales from English History (Book 2): Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More (Little, Brown 2005).

Published (Book 3): December 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 24, 2007

The Top Five ‘Most Influential People Who Never Lived’ in Order

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 am

Postscript to yesterday’s review …

I realized after posting the March 23 review of The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (Harper, 2006) that you might like to see the authors’ list of the top five in order. Here they are:

1. The Marlboro Man

2. Big Brother

3. King Arthur

4. Santa Claus (St. Nick)

5. Hamlet

You can find the full list of on page 9 of the book and read more about the rankings by scrolling down to the full review. Who would be on your list?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 29, 2006

James L. Swanson Follows the Trail of John Wilkes Booth

A taut true-crime story about the search for Lincoln’s assassin

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Morrow, 448 pp., $26.95.

Over Thanksgiving dinner I told one of the smartest people I know that I had just finished Manhunt, the true story of the attempt to capture the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. “Why did John Wilkes Booth kill Lincoln, anyway?” my friend asked. “Was he just crazy?”

I couldn’t have answered before I read Manhunt and, no doubt, many people still can’t. One of the chief virtues of this fascinating book is that it reminds us how little we know about some of the most familiar events in American history.

Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson hasn’t written a biography or a character study of Booth but a true-crime story about what happened between the actor’s escape from Ford’s Theatre after the assassination and his arrest at a barn in Virginia 12 days later. So he leaves unanswered many questions about Booth’s mental stability. Instead he casts the actor as a passionate white supremacist who saw Lincoln as a tyrant and was enraged by the president’s recent call for limited black suffrage. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, but strong Confederate armies remained at large in parts of the South, and their leaders had not taken their cues from Lee. Booth may have been delusional enough to believe that, by killing Lincoln, he could affect what remained of the Civil War.

For all its absence of psychological insight, this story is rich in adventures worthy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Swanson follows Booth and an accomplice from Ford’s Theatre to the homes of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland and a pine thicket where they hid for five days until they believed they could safely cross the Potomac to Virginia in small boat under cover of darkness. And although he occasionally he describes thoughts by Booth that he appears to have had no way to know, he documents most of the story meticulously.

Manhunt came out just before Presidents’ Day, and some critics may omit it from holiday gift lists in favor of more recent titles. That’s too bad, because this book has much to offer adults and teenagers with a passion for U.S. History. Many of us learned from our teachers that after shooting Lincoln, Booth leaped onto the stage at Ford’s and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” – “Thus always to tyrants.” How many of us learned that he first said something else? Before leaving the president’s box, Booth shouted a single word: “Freedom!”

Best line: “John Wilkes Booth’s escape and disappearance unfolded as though scripted not by a master criminal, but by a master dramatist. Each additional day of Booth’s absence from the stage intensified the story’s dramatic arc.”

Worst line: Swanson describes what Booth was thinking just before his arrest in lines like: “Suicide? Never that shameful end, Booth vowed to himself. Richard III did not commit suicide, Macbeth did not die by his own hand, nor Brutus …” Swanson provides many endnotes, but none makes clear how he could have known this.

Editors: Michael Morrison at HarperCollins and Lisa Gallagher at Morrow

Published: February 2006. HarperPerennial paperback to be published February 20007. www.jameslswanson.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 22, 2006

Adam Nicolson on the Greatest Work of English Prose

Filed under: History — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 am

The king is dead. Long live the king’s bible.

God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. By Adam Nicolson. HarperPerennial, 336 pp., $13.95.

Although pink Queen Elizabeth roses are still blooming here in New Jersey, the front tables at bookstores are filling up with books on religious topics that publishers view as fit for the Christmas-gift market. And in that category, few of this year’s offerings are likely to match God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson’s 2003 account of the making of the King James Bible. Nicolson rightly calls the King James Version “the greatest work of prose ever written in English” and supports his view in an engaging work of popular history.

Time has obscured most of the details of the working methods of the 50 or so black-gowned scholars and others who fashioned a new translation of the Bible in the 17th century at the request of King James I of England. So in most cases no one can know why the Translators, as they were called, chose one word or phrase over another. Nicolson deals with the archival gaps by setting the birth of the KJV in a rich context that draws on history, literary criticism, and other disciplines. And although biblical scholars have faulted the text for small errors, he writes with an intelligence and narrative flair that make his book an excellent introduction to the subject for most others.

Best line: “Integration is both the purpose and the method of the King James Bible. And one sign of that attempt at integration is the degree to which the text the Translators had produced was an amalgam of the sequence of translations that had come before it.”

Worst line: “Unlike the churches themselves, the words of this Bible remain alive, a way of speaking and a form of language which is still a vehicle of meaning in circumstances when little else can be.” Overwritten and, in the U.S., untrue. Can Nicolson really be unaware of the remarkable growth of American megachurches?

Recommended if … you missed the book when it first came out and share Nicolson’s view that the KJV is “an everlasting miracle.” God Secretaries could make a good Christmas gift for a minister, choir director, or Sunday school teacher, especially if signed by an appropriate subset of a congregation.

Published: August 2005 (HarperPerennial edition)

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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