Pete Croatto

Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places.

Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration of his house, a Victorian parsonage in southern England. We are so immersed in our daily lives that we often fail to see that a back story exists to everything around us. Plumbing this notion could be a daunting task for a writer, but Bryson gracefully transitions from room to room and anecdote to anecdote with a sharp, playful intelligence. New readers will be enthralled; returning readers will be re-enthralled and appreciate the accompanying illustrations.

There’s a joy to Bryson’s writing, as if he’s tickled and astounded by his discoveries. Take his discussion of salt: It’s a coveted and essential mineral, but the absence of salt, Bryson observes, “awakens no craving. It makes you feel bad and eventually it kills you . . . but at no point would a human being think: ‘Gosh, I could sure do with some salt.’” His infectiousness will propel readers through the book. 

THE LONGEST DAY

Illustrator Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a panoramic, 24-foot-long, black-and-white drawing of World War I’s signature (and gruesome) battle. On that day, some 20,000 British soldiers—not knowing that a weeklong strategic artillery bombardment had failed to wipe out German machine-gun emplacements—essentially marched to their slaughter. Another 40,000 were wounded. We see the soldiers proceeding as if they’re going to work, laughing and yawning and waiting. Then, there’s a wave of uninterrupted terror. Men shout and wear masks of grave concern. Bodies lie in immobile stacks. Each panel is packed with the aspects of war we prefer not to see. The final one, where soldiers dig rows of graves, is a grim reminder of the misery that remained even after the battle died down. Sacco’s astounding depiction of that day is overwhelmingly moving because he captures the little strokes among the epic chaos.

STORY OF A NATION

In many ways, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin is the ideal coffee-table book. Featuring a thoughtfully curated selection of objects from the Smithsonian’s vast collections—including Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet—the book boasts an abundance of stunning photos and short, info-packed chapters that make it easy to dive in at any point and come away with something useful. Gawk at a photo of Julia Child’s kitchen, and learn that her mainstream success was partially set up by Jackie Kennedy. Gaze upon Abraham Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat, and discover that most clothes in pre-industrial America were made specifically for an individual. What also becomes apparent in perusing the pages of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects is that items we might dismiss as merely stuff may end up being part of our nation’s history. Fifty years from now, an iPhone could be a relic that represents a culture gradually seeing the world through mobile technology. History is in the objects all around us—not just in books.

Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places. Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration […]

War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them.

A GENERATION PASSES

Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of the Doughboys, the only surviving American veterans of World War I. Just a few dozen of them remained when he began his research, including a man who transferred bodies to Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and another who regretted not serving in combat. Though not all of the subjects are chatty, their remembrances give Rubin the opportunity to provide dignity to the elderly and show how a simpler time was actually quite complicated.

Rubin reminds us that 1.3 million men were killed in just one battle, the Somme. The era of WWI saw segregation as the norm, as well as the marginalization of women, who could not serve in combat. Immigrants were a significant presence in America, but the culture of the day was to support the U.S.—or else. Those are among several themes explored by Rubin, who is so determined to detail the battles and tasks of his interview subjects—while discussing other topics such as the challenges of interviewing 100-year-olds—that he’s nearly foiled by his own ambition. Still, he manages to fashion a nice ode to a generation whose role in shaping modern-day America is fading from public consciousness.

HITLER’S ART HEIST

Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy examines the United States’ attempt to save valuable artistic works in WWII-ravaged Italy. Bombings and gunfire were not the only threats: The Nazis were smuggling art from various Italian cities, including works by the most famous artists of the Renaissance. Salt mines in Austria were converted into a hideout for thousands of pieces of art, some of which belonged to Adolf Hitler himself.

Saving Italy works best in showing how a picture is worth more than a thousand words. For the Nazis, the paintings and sculptures were spoils of war. For the Italians, art was a crucial part of their history, one that the Americans recognized. Out of that concern rose “a new kind of soldier charged with saving, not destroying, what lay in the path of the conquering army.” Among these soldiers were the book’s two protagonists, “Monuments Men” Deane Keller and Fred Hartt.

Though some readers may grow impatient with the book’s structure, which loads the story with a detailed accounting of military strategy (including the Nazis’ surrender), Edsel tells a readable and ultimately triumphant story.

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey possesses the juiciness of a beach read. Peter Carlson’s excellent book covers the plight of two reporters from the New York Tribune, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, who were captured by Confederate troops in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Since both men were non-military personnel, they were quickly paroled. But getting released was another matter entirely. Because the Confederacy so loathed the Tribune and prisoner exchanges between the North and the South had stopped, Browne and Richardson were stuck in purgatory. After 20 months, escape on foot and horseback to Union territory near Knoxville, Tennessee—a 340-mile journey laden with potential enemies—was their only option.

Carlson works with wonderful efficiency, describing the political and social environment both men faced but never losing sight of the story and its momentum. The writing is compact and vivid as readers are escorted to the hell both men endured. “Freezing rain fell all night,” Carlson writes, “and in the morning the corpses piled outside the dead house glistened with a thin coating of ice.”

THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY
I’m guessing the New-York Historical Society doesn’t have corpses, but it probably has everything else. The Civil War in 50 Objects, written by Civil War historian Harold Holzer, is a fantastic museum tour of a book. Fifty items out of the Society’s nearly one million Civil War items are presented in mostly chronological order. Holzer provides historical background and context for each piece, which range from a pike used by John Brown’s freedom fighters to a footlocker belonging to Lt. Col. William H. Paine of the Fourth Wisconsin.

The beauty of the book is its format. Readers familiar with the Civil War can head to an item of particular interest—as a reformed beat reporter, I flipped right to the prison newspaper—while casual readers will enjoy an inviting atmosphere for a historically intimidating subject. With such an effective strategy, it’s no wonder that Holzer is an editor. Perhaps he should have been a general.

War is a complex subject with many aspects to explore, but one thing is clear: It makes for good books. Four new releases examine the American experience in three wars through the remarkable stories and objects that survived them. A GENERATION PASSES Richard Rubin (Confederacy of Silence) roamed the country to interview The Last of […]

Dinosaurs keep grabbing our attention because they are the closest things in the earth’s history to monsters: flying, fanged, scaly things that speak of a past that is part mythology and part science fiction. These creatures actually roamed the earth—and continue to do so. Birds, believe it or not, are dinosaurs.

Does that fact diminish the mysterious aura of the tried-and-true dinosaur? It shouldn’t. Thanks to advances in science and the discovery of more fossils, new details of dino life keep emerging. It’s next to impossible to reconstruct 230 million years of existence, so the civilization they lived in will always be under construction. Our curiosity will never die.

Author Brian Switek, a dinosaur aficionado turned professional writer, tries to reconstruct that world in My Beloved Brontosaurus, posing questions and exploring the possible answers. This ambitious objective is immeasurably helped by Switek’s good humor and enthusiasm. Reading the book, you know that Switek understands this is a fool’s errand, but the guy can’t help himself: He’s fascinated by the results of the research—and what it promises.

Thanks to Switek’s non-technical delivery, we are too. Using living organisms is a great way to examine dinosaurs. So if we look at the example of birds and crocodylians, we can hypothesize that dinosaurs may have hidden their genitalia in a slit called a cloaca, which would have made sexual relations tricky business. Parasites, and the spread of them through cannibalism, may have contributed to the dinosaurs’ demise, though many researchers favor a fatal, gigantic asteroid. Who’s right? It’s impossible to say.

It may surprise you that Switek’s book provides clarity. The dinosaurs didn’t just show up, bellow, and then disappear. They were around far longer than humans, who have been around a mere 200,000 years. Dinosaurs, Switek writes, represent “evolution and extinction—triumphant and ultimately tragic creatures that beautifully illustrate the duality of life’s constant thread. They are guideposts to the past and harbingers of what the future might bring.”

Dinosaurs keep grabbing our attention because they are the closest things in the earth’s history to monsters: flying, fanged, scaly things that speak of a past that is part mythology and part science fiction. These creatures actually roamed the earth—and continue to do so. Birds, believe it or not, are dinosaurs. Does that fact diminish […]

Most of us would like to believe that we’re free-thinking, fair-minded folks who treat everyone equally. In this age of political correctness and diversity, that’s built into the code of everyday life. There’s proof. Americans elected an African-American president—twice.

Yet, according to Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, such gestures don’t atone for the various “mindbugs” we possess: “ingrained habits” that dictate how we perceive and react to, well, everything around us.

That I can summarize the book so easily is a credit to the authors, longtime psychology professors at Harvard University (Banaji) and the University of Washington (Greenwald), who complement their data with straightforward explanations and examples, whether it’s real-life stories or famous “Seinfeld” episodes. The result is a riveting book steeped in research that feels personal, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Blindspot’s first moment of clarity comes when you take the authors’ much-discussed Implicit Association Tests (IATs), especially the one on race. You may find that you’re not as enlightened as you believe. (A 2009 meta-analysis of 184 studies showed that “the race IAT predicted racially discriminatory behavior.”) By allowing us to participate in the science—as I did—and not just digest data, Banaji and Greenwald capture our attention.

And what we learn is fascinating. Examples: Stereotypes may help us navigate the world, but they can force the affected to live up (or down) to that description—which can be good and bad. Discrimination doesn’t have to involve overt acts of hatred, but can be as simple as “maintaining the status quo.” (The authors describe a doctor at a university hospital whose effort increased when he learned that his youthful-looking patient was a professor.) Automatic preferences steer us away from uncomfortable situations, which is why undertakers may have a hard time finding dates.

In this accessible and sobering book, Banaji and Greenwald dig into our soul’s deepest crevices. And that’s great. Because it turns out that before we can all get along with each other, we need to work on ourselves.

Most of us would like to believe that we’re free-thinking, fair-minded folks who treat everyone equally. In this age of political correctness and diversity, that’s built into the code of everyday life. There’s proof. Americans elected an African-American president—twice. Yet, according to Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of […]

The literature of the Vietnam War does not feature much hagiography, just stories of inner torment, senseless deaths and shattered ideologies. What’s tragic—and overlooked—is that the soldiers were not the only ones who endured an unimaginable hell. In the sobering Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse provides an exhaustive account of how thousands upon thousands of innocent, unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were senselessly killed by a military that equated corpses with results.

Turse’s book, a graphic collection of rapes, shootings and wanton disregard for human life, is a difficult, frequently depressing affair. By the end, it reads as a parody of machismo taken to fatal, troubling extremes. But this actually happened. Who’s to say it won’t happen again?

Relying on interviews, government documents and other research, Turse breaks down how these atrocities came to pass. Recruits in basic training became killing machines; indeed, they were rewarded for a high number of kills. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s game plan for the war boiled down to “killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace.” The U.S. military did little to protect Vietnamese civilians, essentially shooting anyone running away or wearing black. A bit of clerical fudging turned farmers, children and the elderly into kill-crazy Vietcong.

It went on like this for years, with the infamous massacre at My Lai serving as just the most publicized example. The incidents become a blur of awfulness, a rush of power run amok. Kill Anything That Moves is a staggering reminder that war has its gruesome subplots hidden underneath the headlines—but they’re even sadder when our heroes create them.

The literature of the Vietnam War does not feature much hagiography, just stories of inner torment, senseless deaths and shattered ideologies. What’s tragic—and overlooked—is that the soldiers were not the only ones who endured an unimaginable hell. In the sobering Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse provides an exhaustive account of how thousands upon thousands […]

Everyone can think of a grim anecdote about Detroit—the highest murder rate in the country, 70,000 abandoned buildings—that they saw in a magazine article or in a news report. The city is an easy punch line, a convenient example to use when citing how America’s good fortune is running out.

There’s a larger truth. A city does not reach this state without a story behind its decline. And what about the thousands who live and work in Detroit, who must grow tired of being viewed as targets of pity or weary subjects for magazine features?

Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be is part history, part explanation and part profile of a city he knows intimately—he grew up in the Detroit area. Sounds complex? It is, and it should be. The city doesn’t need any more labels or quick summaries. It needs someone to put a face on Detroit, to show that it’s not rolling over and playing dead. Binelli proves he’s up to the task in this refreshing, intriguing work.

What’s most apparent in Binelli’s thorough reporting is that Detroit is in constant battle mode. With so much unused land in the city, urban farming has become popular, but there are also those who want to make this neighborhood unifier into a corporate endeavor. Neighborhoods have become havens for creative types, but the changes brought by this influx “were miniscule in comparison with the problems facing the rest of the city,” Binelli reports. The American auto industry has created some noteworthy cars in recent years, but the unions are in the middle of a slow, endless death.

Binelli actually lived in Detroit while writing the book, and he talks to dozens of residents. It feels like he’s invested in Detroit’s future, not just reveling in the relevancy. He wants to understand what happened and what will happen. By looking beyond the troubling headlines and promises of politicians, Binelli discovers what determines a city’s fate: people who care. Detroit has more than you might expect.

Everyone can think of a grim anecdote about Detroit—the highest murder rate in the country, 70,000 abandoned buildings—that they saw in a magazine article or in a news report. The city is an easy punch line, a convenient example to use when citing how America’s good fortune is running out. There’s a larger truth. A […]

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