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STARRED REVIEW

November 15, 2022

The best World War II histories and memoirs of 2022

Even the most devoted history buffs will discover fresh perspectives among these 11 outstanding World War II reads.

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Reading One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is like watching an artist piece together a mosaic. A splash of blue sea here. A mother’s song over there. The smell of Purim pastries. The flash of first love. But the mosaic is never completed. Instead, a terrible wind descends, leaving the artist to pick up the pieces as best she can and begin a new image.

Here, the artist is Stella Levi, a 99-year-old Jewish woman living in New York City. The mosaic is the Juderia, the main Jewish quarter on the island of Rhodes, where Levi was born in 1923. And the wind is the Holocaust, which reached the Juderia in the last months of World War II and scattered Levi’s parents, family, friends and community. One Hundred Saturdays is the story of that time and place, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.

Frank, author of The Mighty Franks and What Is Missing and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, met Levi by chance—or perhaps serendipity—when he rushed in late to attend a lecture, and the elegant older woman in the chair next to him struck up a conversation. The following Saturday, he found himself in Levi’s Greenwich Village apartment, the first of 100 Saturdays that he would spend with her over the following six years. Over the course of those visits, Levi became both a friend and muse as she recounted the minutest details of her life, from its rich beginning to its remarkable present.

Maira Kalman’s illustrations, heavily influenced by Matisse with their deceptive simplicity, rich colors and delicate textures, are perfect complements to Levi’s story, portraying vanished scenes from life on Rhodes before the Holocaust. Together with the text of Frank’s beautiful book, they create a sensitive portrait of an extraordinary woman. Fiercely independent, keenly intelligent and remorselessly honest, Levi refuses to be defined solely by the tragedy of her youth. Her life has been a constant evolution, and her final years are being lived with the same vitality as her earliest ones.

One Hundred Saturdays is the story of a Jewish community before the Holocaust, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.
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From 1932 to 1942, Joseph C. Grew served as the United States ambassador to Japan, where he was devoted to cultivating peace between the two countries. Despite his extraordinary efforts, he left the post in 1942 following six months of internment in the Tokyo embassy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Author Steve Kemper draws on a wide range of sources, including Grew’s memoirs and diary, diplomatic messages and Japanese accounts of events, as he recounts the lead-up to America’s involvement in World War II in Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor.

Grew was an unlikely career diplomat. His background—Boston, Groton, Harvard—indicated a different path, perhaps a career in business or banking. But he sought adventure. On his way to assume new duties in Tokyo, he wrote in his diary that of all his 14 posts, Japan “promises to be the most adventurous of all.”

Kemper takes readers behind the scenes to see the complex realities that Grew coped with on a daily basis. He tried to alert America’s leaders to the challenges of Japan’s increasing militarism and fervent nationalism while doing what he could to keep their foreign policy in check. Where he was open-minded and pragmatic, his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, had a fundamental distrust of Japan. Grew strongly protested Japan’s many devastating acts against Americans, but he was also concerned by the ignorance of American isolationists and pacifists at home who saw the U.S. as a warmonger. 

On January 27, 1941, long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ambassador first heard the rumor that if the Japanese government broke with the United States, it would plan a surprise mass attack. He passed that word along to the U.S. State Department—however, the Navy had already studied the possibility of a Pearl Harbor attack and considered it unlikely.

Grew’s tireless efforts to avert war with Japan demonstrate both the value and the limitations of any one person in international power politics. This enlightening and well-written history should be of interest to a wide range of readers.

Steve Kemper’s splendid portrait of the American ambassador to Japan during the lead-up to World War II will be of interest to a wide range of history lovers.
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When award-winning British journalist Simon Parkin (A Game of Birds and Wolves) dug through the National Archives in London looking for a story idea, he literally found one: A newspaper called The Camp was mistakenly folded between some pages. Produced by German and Austrian internees at a camp for “enemy aliens” during World War II, the newspaper revealed details about a time and place discreetly buried within a shameful chapter of England’s fight against the Nazis. The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp brings to light a truly extraordinary example of humanity at its best and worst in a country at war, sometimes with itself.

With copious and often heart-wrenching detail, Parkin brings this interlude back to life through the experiences of those imprisoned in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man and their thwarted yet persistent rescuers. In 1938, Peter Fleischmann, a Jewish teenager thought to be an orphan, escaped Berlin via the legendary Kindertransport train and landed in England. Then, in 1940, he was arrested. Suspected of (but never charged with) being a Nazi spy, he was released, then arrested again, as British fears about refugees intensified. Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and Nazi sympathizers alike, were deported or imprisoned in camps on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. 

In Hutchinson camp, the arts were encouraged as an antidote to anxiety and despair, enabling imprisoned painters, composers, journalists, scholars, poets, sculptors and musicians to create “Hutchinson University.” There, Fleischmann flourished. He and many others—such as his mentor, Dadaist pioneer Kurt Schwitters—would later excel in their fields.

Justice seekers like Bertha Bracey of the Germany Emergency Committee kept pressure on the government to end the misbegotten idea of mass internment, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended it as a necessary wartime protection. “Most regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” Sir John Anderson said in an address to Parliament in 1940. It was as close as England ever came to an apology.

In addition to the prison newspaper, Parkin’s primary sources include firsthand accounts of the tragic sinking of the SS Andora Star, an ill-equipped former cruise ship that deported hundreds of “enemy aliens” to Canada and was attacked by a German U-boat, and interviews with internees’ friends and descendants. It is a cautionary yet inspiring tale, one that bears remembering.

Simon Parkin brings the shameful history of British internment camps during World War II to life in The Island of Extraordinary Captives.

Caroline Moorehead, author of the New York Times bestselling Resistance Quartet, brings her prodigious research and storytelling talents to Mussolini’s Daughter, her study of Edda Mussolini, the eldest and favorite child of Benito Mussolini and one of the most powerful women in 1930s Europe. In her foreword, Moorehead notes the challenges facing any biographer of the Mussolini family, including the difficulty of separating swirling myths from facts. Yet through her skillful mining of archival materials, personal papers and memoirs, Moorhead has created for readers—even ones previously unfamiliar with the rise of fascism in Italy—a nuanced portrait of a complex woman.

One of the pleasures of a deeply researched biography is being transported into the past through rich details that bring historical figures to life. Moorehead is masterful at this. For instance, we learn early on that in 1910, Edda’s mother, Rachele, already pregnant, defied her family and left home to live with Mussolini. The young couple walked five kilometers in a downpour, taking with them only “four sheets, four plates and six knives, spoons and forks.”

Moorehead writes that “Mussolini and Fascism made Edda what she was.” With this in mind, the author devotes considerable space to tracing Mussolini’s rising political career, which paralleled Edda’s youth. By the time Edda was 11, her father was the editor of a successful newspaper “and the leader of a quickly growing political movement.” In 1922, he became prime minister of Italy and set about consolidating power to become dictator.

In 1930, in an impressive ceremony Moorehead describes as “the wedding of the century,” glamorous, mercurial 19-year-old Edda married Count Galeazzo Ciano, son of one of the founders of the Fascist Party. Although she was part of a “golden couple,” Edda also had a fierce independent streak.

Moorehead spends ample time covering World War II and the ways in which the military conflict, Italy’s alliance with Germany and complex internal power struggles determined the fates of the two men closest to Edda. Despite her efforts to save him, her husband was executed for treason in January of 1944—an outcome Mussolini did little to prevent. Mussolini himself was killed in April 1945. Edda, meanwhile, escaped to Switzerland with her three children. Though for a time she professed to hate Mussolini, Edda once told an interviewer that her father “was the only man I ever really loved.”

Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller, one that will have special appeal for readers fascinated by European history, World War II and the conditions that gave rise to fascism.

Caroline Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller.

As World War II recedes further into the past, Jonathan Freedland has revived one story from the Holocaust that’s both historically significant and a riveting read. Freedland, the author of several thrillers and a correspondent for The Guardian, writes with a novelist’s verve to tell the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz.

The Escape Artist opens with Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler, another young prisoner, in the middle of an escape attempt. With the help of two other prisoners, Vrba and Wetzler climbed into a woodpile to hide, the first step in escaping the death camp. “For the teenage [Vrba], it was an exhilarating feeling—but not a wholly new one,” Freedland writes. “Because this was not his first escape. And it would not be his last.”

In the late 1930s, leaders in Slovakia seized Jews’ assets and steadily banned them from public life, including schools. Even so, a young Vrba taught himself new languages and learned chemistry from an illicit textbook. As deportation approached, Vrba tried to escape to England but landed in a transit camp. He escaped the camp, got captured again and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis had convinced the deported Jews that they were merely being resettled, but once inside Auschwitz, Vrba began to understand the truth: The Nazis were methodically killing millions of Jewish people.

When Vrba was put to work in the section of Auschwitz that processed stolen Jewish belongings, he found a new level of corruption: The Nazis had stolen every material possession from each deported Jewish person, and SS guards were making deals with enslaved workers to keep certain valuables. The brutality and inhumanity of Nazis at every level is chilling and can make for difficult reading. At the same time, Freedland’s depth of research gives a more complete picture of Auschwitz, and Vrba’s inventiveness and ultimate escape from the camp, and his efforts to tell the world the truth about its horrors, make for a gripping narrative.

The book’s last section follows Vrba through his long postwar life in Canada, where he worked as a biochemistry professor at the University of British Columbia. Vrba wrote his own memoir in the 1960s, but now The Escape Artist vividly brings his story to a new generation of readers.

Jonathan Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz, with a novelist's verve.
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“Finis Austriae” was the only entry in Sigmund Freud’s journal on the day the Nazi army flooded over the Austrian border. In Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom, former Newsweek foreign correspondent Andrew Nagorski maps the Nazi takeover of Austria and the urgent operation to rescue Freud, one of Austria’s most famous and most devoted Jewish sons, along with fifteen other people, including his personal doctor, in-laws and other family members.

Nagorski is masterful at juxtaposing the evolution of the global emergency that became World War II with the deep interiority of a man whose passionate life work concerned people’s half-hidden thoughts. The father of psychoanalysis downplayed the threat the Nazis posed, clinging to his optimism that humans would turn back to the light and all would be made right, until it was almost calamitously too late. Saving Freud is the sort of book that, though you know the outcome of the events, still makes you hope with Freud that something might take a turn for the better. Nagorski has a gift for revealing that everything—worldwide emergencies, far-away news, political decisions—is, in the end, about people. This is wonderfully appropriate for a book about Freud, who laid the groundwork for interrogating and understanding the inner self.

It is dizzying to think of everything that had to be achieved to move a large, wealthy and well-known Jewish family out of Nazi territory and into the relative safety of the broader world, which was still often unwelcoming to both Jews and immigrants. Yet Saving Freud tells the story of a group of people—including Freud’s daughter Anna and her lover, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (heiress to the Tiffany & Co. fortune); the U.S. ambassador to France, William Bullitt; and Marie Bonaparte, princess of Greece and great-grandniece to Napoleon—who did just that. Motivated by love and towering respect for a man and his work, the unlikely team cooperated seamlessly to achieve the near impossible. It is a tale of good-heartedness, of human devotion and of people who unhesitatingly rushed in to do the right thing. In this way, it feels like a relief to read. Far from being a dry historical account, the book’s emphasis on the personal creates a compelling, page-turning narrative that is wholly engrossing and difficult to put down. Nagorski has written a book for our time, reminding us of the potential for good and adherence to higher ideals in moments of global emergency.

Far from being a dry historical account, Saving Freud is a compelling, page-turning narrative of the urgent operation to rescue Sigmund Freud from the Nazis.

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Even the most devoted history buffs will discover fresh perspectives among the best World War II histories and memoirs of 2022.
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Documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns believes that photographs are portals “not just to a different time and space but also to dimensions and possibilities within myself.” Through photographs and illustrations, these books are guaranteed to transport you.

Apollo Remastered

Book jacket image for Apollo Remastered by Andy Saunders

Apollo Remastered: The Ultimate Photographic Record is a weighty, large-format coffee table book that beams readers right into its cosmic world. The original NASA film from the Apollo missions (which includes some 35,000 images) has been safely secured inside a frozen vault at the Johnson Space Center, but new technology has allowed digital restoration expert Andy Saunders to painstakingly remaster this treasure trove of photographs, many of which have never been published. The results are pure magic, full of clarity, sharpness and color that make readers feel like part of the team—a far cry from those grainy images that were broadcast on TV at the time. 

During their spaceflights, many astronauts were shocked by how moved they felt looking back at Earth, and readers will see why. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell notes, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart recommends reading this book at night, surrounded by darkness and silence, to allow the gleaming spacecraft and spacesuits to shimmer and shine.

Our America

Book jacket image for Our America by Ken Burns

In the tradition of Walker Evans’ groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photographs, Ken Burns has assembled a collection of his favorite images in Our America: A Photographic History. “I’ve needed forty-five years of telling stories in American history, of diving deep into lives and moments, places and huge events, to accrue the visual vocabulary to embark on this book,” he writes in his introduction. 

These black-and-white photographs are arranged chronologically from 1839 to 2019, with only one on each page for full visual impact. They’re labeled by date and place (at least one for each state), with fuller explanations at the back of the book, and they are mesmerizing, drawing on a multitude of personalities, emotions and events. The images depict the brutally scarred back of an enslaved man, decomposing bodies at Gettysburg, frozen Niagara Falls, a 1909 game of alley baseball in Boston, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Elvis onstage and, finally, a stunning portrait of Congressman John Lewis from 2019.

Illustrated Black History

Book jacket image for Illustrated Black History by George McCalman

For Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen, artist, designer and creative director George McCalman created 145 original portraits spotlighting Black pioneers in many fields, each accompanied by a short biographical essay. Moving alphabetically from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to cinematographer Bradford Young, McCalman uses a bold array of acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink and colored pencils, to capture each personality in an individualized way. “I document body language, I document exuberance, I document pain,” he writes. “I draw like a reporter because I am a reporter.” 

McCalman began this project by challenging himself to paint one such portrait every day for a month, and the result overflows with energy and color. His choices are inspiring and well-rounded, running the gamut from Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin to activist Alicia Garza and food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin.

My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy

Book jacket image for My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy by Clint Hill

Despite the mountains of books already written about the Kennedys, I couldn’t put down My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy, a conversational memoir and very personal photo album by Clint Hill. A former Secret Service agent who served under five U.S. presidents, Hill was present during John F. Kennedy’s assassination and later assigned to the first lady and her children. He’s written other books about those experiences, including several with his wife and co-author, Lisa McCubbin Hill. 

This book was sparked by the process of cleaning out the garage of Hill’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, going through boxes of memorabilia, including a forgotten steamer trunk. Dialogue between the co-authors makes the book immensely readable as they discuss their discoveries and Hill’s memories. Numerous photos bring each scene to life, capturing intimate moments that reveal the first family’s personalities, especially that of Jackie. Of their relationship, Hill writes, “It wasn’t romantic. But it was beyond friendship. We could communicate with a look or a nod.”

The Only Woman

Book jacket image for The Only Woman by Immy Humes

The Only Woman is a unique gallery of group portraits that contain a lone female figure surrounded by men. There’s Marie Curie, for instance, with her head in her hand, looking downright bored among a group of suited scientists at a 1911 conference in Belgium. There’s 9-year-old Ab Hoffman, who earned a spot on a Canadian hockey team for one season in 1956 because her coaches hadn’t noticed her gender. In a 1982 photo, a white male U.S. Army Diver candidate sneers at Andrea Motley Crabtree, a Black woman who made the training cut when he didn’t. “Most of the men hated me being there,” Crabtree recalls. “He couldn’t understand how I was better than him.” 

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Immy Humes provides concise commentary throughout her collection, which spans from 1862 to 2020. She speaks to “the pleasure of spotting them, and then, most of all, the mystery of them: What was she doing there?”

Affinities

Affinities book cover

In need of some creative downtime? Curl up with the hefty Affinities: A Journey Through Images From the Public Domain Review and lose yourself in a delightfully imaginative, visionary game. The book’s 350-plus pages contain a miscellany of images arranged to showcase unexpected similarities. For example, one section features the shapes of outstretched arms as seen in a 16th-century drawing of a mechanical arm, an image of the Borghese Gladiator sculpture, a John Singleton Copley painting and—of all things—a photo of damage sustained to the bow of the HMS Broke during a World War I battle. 

With images old and new from around the world, all selected from the archive of the Public Domain Review, this is a book designed for random perusal. Some images come with suggested paths to different pages, creating a sort of chutes-and-ladders effect. As explained in the introduction, the result is “a maze of rootlike cut-throughs that allow you to move through the book in different ways, to disrupt the sequence and carve through your own serpentine trajectory.”

The armchair historian’s wish list isn’t a tough nut to crack. Just give them a great book.
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How important are individuals in the shaping of history? Twentieth-century Europeans knew leaders whose decisions, good or ill, transformed their countries, the continent and, in some cases, the world. Ian Kershaw, one of our leading historians of the period, focuses on 12 of them in his enlightening and stimulating Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. They range from the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. We learn of the personality traits and historical preconditions that brought each person to power, and Kershaw provides examples of how that power was used and an assessment of each leader’s legacy.

War was the most important enabler of power in the 20th century. Without World War I, the chances of Lenin, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler becoming leaders would have been virtually zero. Without World War II, it is unlikely that Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Josip Broz Tito would have led their countries. Of the 12 figures in Personality and Power, only Konrad Adenauer, Mikhail Gorbachev and Kohl were never war leaders. (Francisco Franco had the Spanish Civil War, and Margaret Thatcher the war in the Falklands.)

Each leader profiled here had a strong sense of self, a relentless will to succeed and the ability to get complete loyalty from followers. Some have dark legacies, such as Hitler with the Holocaust and Lenin with communism, that still endure. Other legacies are more mixed. Between 1940 and 1945, probably no European democracy had a leader with more power than Winston Churchill. He was somewhat of a political failure before that, and his later return as prime minister from 1951 to 1955 was not a great success. But his example during the war continues to inspire people today. Similarly, although Gorbachev’s years in power were few, it is unlikely that anyone else could have instigated and pursued the policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Leadership changed, however, and his policies were reversed.

These excellent in-depth profiles of major figures and their influence on millions of people help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

Ian Kershaw’s excellent in-depth profiles of 12 major leaders from 20th-century Europe help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.

Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.

In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.

Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.

Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.

Though Emma Smith’s lively and engaging history of the book reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight general readers and bibliophiles everywhere.
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Adam Rutherford (A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Humanimal) earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. from University College London, including several years studying in the university’s Galton Laboratory. This straightforward sentence hides a deep irony. As readers of his book How to Argue With a Racist know, Rutherford is passionately anti-eugenics—while Francis Galton, for whom the Galton Laboratory is named, was the 19th-century scientist who coined the term eugenics and pioneered its ideology.

Divided into two distinct parts, Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics first outlines the history of eugenics, then lays out the scientific, ethical and moral arguments against it. The history is messy indeed. Galton and his contemporaries were brilliant scientists, statisticians and polymaths—but also white supremacists with repugnant ideas. First hailed as a way to promote positive attributes in humanity, eugenics quickly devolved into a racist movement that used mass sterilization and even murder to remove people with “undesirable” traits such as alcoholism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia from the human gene pool. Eugenics laws in the United States inspired Nazi euthanasia laws, and the Nazi classification of races owes a lot to the American model. Most ironically, the pseudoscience of eugenics gave birth to the actual science of genetics.

Rutherford believes this history is not over. He fears the politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs who use eugenic ideas for their own advancement or profit, and this fear gives the second half of the book its power. Rutherford has faith in science. It is genetics, he argues, that provides the best proof that eugenics has never and will never work. Our genome is too complex and intertwined for scientists to cleanly pluck negative traits from or insert positive traits into our biological makeup.

Eugenics is not science, Rutherford explains, but the corruption of science for the purpose of controlling people who are weak, vulnerable and poor. And it is this very corruption, as Control clearly demonstrates, that makes eugenics’ followers unworthy to determine who is and isn’t worthy of life.

Adam Rutherford builds on his previous works in Control, a powerful book that outlines the history of eugenics and offers impassioned arguments against it.
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A good old-fashioned yarn that spans generations and eras, A Generous Pour: Tall Tales From the Backroom of Jimmy Kelly’s traces the remarkable origins of a beloved Nashville, Tennessee, establishment: Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse. Mike Kelly, the restaurant’s current owner, tells the intriguing story of how his Irish immigrant family established a thriving restaurant business after an adventuresome start in whiskey making and liquor running. Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of Kelly’s best.

Divided neatly into four parts, the narrative documents the rise of the Kelly family enterprise—an achievement made possible by the clan’s natural instinct for commerce and spirit of hardscrabble ingenuity. The author’s great-grandfather, James Michael Kelly, left Ireland in the 1840s, became a moonshiner in Tennessee at the age of 17 and lost an eye in the Civil War. His son John made clandestine liquor deliveries and, in 1934, opened a restaurant in Nashville called the 216 Club, “a respectable drinking alternative to the rowdy downtown speakeasies.” The 216 Club served a clientele that included notable politicians and musicians (Elvis Presley was a patron) with first-rate steaks and spirits.

John died in 1948. A year later, his son Jimmy opened Jimmy Kelly’s in Belle Meade, an upscale suburb within metro Nashville. Both restaurant locations flourished. Always a family enterprise, the business passed into the hands of Bill Kelly (Jimmy’s brother and the author’s father) after Jimmy retired.

Kelly handles the book’s complex chronology with wonderful assurance. He seasons the story with fascinating bits of Nashville trivia and demonstrates an undeniable gift for setting scenes. (The book’s sensational opening chapter chronicles the kidnapping of John Kelly by Al Capone’s henchmen.) Kelly himself was raised in the restaurant trade—as a boy, he bused tables with his brothers and slid down the banister of 216’s staircase—and his insider knowledge gives the book a special spark.

Mixed in with his colorful account of the ambitious Kelly clan is a fascinating survey of Music City history, from the upheaval of World War One to the payoffs and police raids of Prohibition, through economic booms and busts, to the landmark event of 1967: the legalization of liquor-by-the-drink in Davidson County, which Kelly identifies as the starting point for Nashville’s ascendance as a business center and major tourist destination. 

Today Kelly manages Jimmy Kelly’s at its current home on Louise Avenue in Midtown Nashville. His book is a charming, briskly written narrative, rich with adventure and detail, that provides a compelling look at Nashville’s past.

Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of whiskey.

As World War II recedes further into the past, Jonathan Freedland has revived one story from the Holocaust that’s both historically significant and a riveting read. Freedland, the author of several thrillers and a correspondent for The Guardian, writes with a novelist’s verve to tell the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz.

The Escape Artist opens with Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler, another young prisoner, in the middle of an escape attempt. With the help of two other prisoners, Vrba and Wetzler climbed into a woodpile to hide, the first step in escaping the death camp. “For the teenage [Vrba], it was an exhilarating feeling—but not a wholly new one,” Freedland writes. “Because this was not his first escape. And it would not be his last.”

In the late 1930s, leaders in Slovakia seized Jews’ assets and steadily banned them from public life, including schools. Even so, a young Vrba taught himself new languages and learned chemistry from an illicit textbook. As deportation approached, Vrba tried to escape to England but landed in a transit camp. He escaped the camp, got captured again and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis had convinced the deported Jews that they were merely being resettled, but once inside Auschwitz, Vrba began to understand the truth: The Nazis were methodically killing millions of Jewish people.

When Vrba was put to work in the section of Auschwitz that processed stolen Jewish belongings, he found a new level of corruption: The Nazis had stolen every material possession from each deported Jewish person, and SS guards were making deals with enslaved workers to keep certain valuables. The brutality and inhumanity of Nazis at every level is chilling and can make for difficult reading. At the same time, Freedland’s depth of research gives a more complete picture of Auschwitz, and Vrba’s inventiveness and ultimate escape from the camp, and his efforts to tell the world the truth about its horrors, make for a gripping narrative.

The book’s last section follows Vrba through his long postwar life in Canada, where he worked as a biochemistry professor at the University of British Columbia. Vrba wrote his own memoir in the 1960s, but now The Escape Artist vividly brings his story to a new generation of readers.

Jonathan Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz, with a novelist's verve.

Caroline Moorehead, author of the New York Times bestselling Resistance Quartet, brings her prodigious research and storytelling talents to Mussolini’s Daughter, her study of Edda Mussolini, the eldest and favorite child of Benito Mussolini and one of the most powerful women in 1930s Europe. In her foreword, Moorehead notes the challenges facing any biographer of the Mussolini family, including the difficulty of separating swirling myths from facts. Yet through her skillful mining of archival materials, personal papers and memoirs, Moorhead has created for readers—even ones previously unfamiliar with the rise of fascism in Italy—a nuanced portrait of a complex woman.

One of the pleasures of a deeply researched biography is being transported into the past through rich details that bring historical figures to life. Moorehead is masterful at this. For instance, we learn early on that in 1910, Edda’s mother, Rachele, already pregnant, defied her family and left home to live with Mussolini. The young couple walked five kilometers in a downpour, taking with them only “four sheets, four plates and six knives, spoons and forks.”

Moorehead writes that “Mussolini and Fascism made Edda what she was.” With this in mind, the author devotes considerable space to tracing Mussolini’s rising political career, which paralleled Edda’s youth. By the time Edda was 11, her father was the editor of a successful newspaper “and the leader of a quickly growing political movement.” In 1922, he became prime minister of Italy and set about consolidating power to become dictator.

In 1930, in an impressive ceremony Moorehead describes as “the wedding of the century,” glamorous, mercurial 19-year-old Edda married Count Galeazzo Ciano, son of one of the founders of the Fascist Party. Although she was part of a “golden couple,” Edda also had a fierce independent streak.

Moorehead spends ample time covering World War II and the ways in which the military conflict, Italy’s alliance with Germany and complex internal power struggles determined the fates of the two men closest to Edda. Despite her efforts to save him, her husband was executed for treason in January of 1944—an outcome Mussolini did little to prevent. Mussolini himself was killed in April 1945. Edda, meanwhile, escaped to Switzerland with her three children. Though for a time she professed to hate Mussolini, Edda once told an interviewer that her father “was the only man I ever really loved.”

Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller, one that will have special appeal for readers fascinated by European history, World War II and the conditions that gave rise to fascism.

Caroline Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller.
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When award-winning British journalist Simon Parkin (A Game of Birds and Wolves) dug through the National Archives in London looking for a story idea, he literally found one: A newspaper called The Camp was mistakenly folded between some pages. Produced by German and Austrian internees at a camp for “enemy aliens” during World War II, the newspaper revealed details about a time and place discreetly buried within a shameful chapter of England’s fight against the Nazis. The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp brings to light a truly extraordinary example of humanity at its best and worst in a country at war, sometimes with itself.

With copious and often heart-wrenching detail, Parkin brings this interlude back to life through the experiences of those imprisoned in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man and their thwarted yet persistent rescuers. In 1938, Peter Fleischmann, a Jewish teenager thought to be an orphan, escaped Berlin via the legendary Kindertransport train and landed in England. Then, in 1940, he was arrested. Suspected of (but never charged with) being a Nazi spy, he was released, then arrested again, as British fears about refugees intensified. Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and Nazi sympathizers alike, were deported or imprisoned in camps on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. 

In Hutchinson camp, the arts were encouraged as an antidote to anxiety and despair, enabling imprisoned painters, composers, journalists, scholars, poets, sculptors and musicians to create “Hutchinson University.” There, Fleischmann flourished. He and many others—such as his mentor, Dadaist pioneer Kurt Schwitters—would later excel in their fields.

Justice seekers like Bertha Bracey of the Germany Emergency Committee kept pressure on the government to end the misbegotten idea of mass internment, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended it as a necessary wartime protection. “Most regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” Sir John Anderson said in an address to Parliament in 1940. It was as close as England ever came to an apology.

In addition to the prison newspaper, Parkin’s primary sources include firsthand accounts of the tragic sinking of the SS Andora Star, an ill-equipped former cruise ship that deported hundreds of “enemy aliens” to Canada and was attacked by a German U-boat, and interviews with internees’ friends and descendants. It is a cautionary yet inspiring tale, one that bears remembering.

Simon Parkin brings the shameful history of British internment camps during World War II to life in The Island of Extraordinary Captives.
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Kliph Nesteroff’s We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy is an intriguing look at how Native Americans have influenced the world of comedy. Starting with the Wild West shows of the 1800s, Nesteroff chronicles the presence and impact of Native comedic performers through the decades. His lively narrative draws on in-depth research and interviews with today’s up-and-coming comedians. Entertainment stereotypes and representation in media are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

Set in Nashville in the 1920s, Margaret Verble’s novel When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky tells the story of a Cherokee woman named Two Feathers who performs as a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. After an accident occurs while Two is performing, strange events take place at the zoo, including sightings of ghosts. Two finds a friend in Clive the zookeeper, and together they try to make sense of the odd goings-on at Glendale Park. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Verble paints an extraordinary portrait of connection in defiance of racism in this moving novel.

In Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace builds a fascinating narrative around a historical incident: the killing of a Seneca hunter by white fur traders in 1722 Pennsylvania. The murder occurred right before a summit between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the English colonists, and it heightened tensions between the two sides at a fragile moment. Eustace brings the era and its seminal events to vivid life as she examines Native attitudes toward retribution and reparation. 

Cree Canadian author Michelle Good’s novel Five Little Indians follows a group of First Nation youngsters who must find their way in the world after growing up during the 1960s in a Canadian residential school, a boarding school for First Nation children designed to isolate them from their culture. As adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lucy, Howie, Clara, Maisie and Kenny struggle to make lives for themselves and escape painful memories of the past. Clara joins the American Indian Movement, while Lucy dreams of building a future with Kenny. Good explores the repercussions of Canada’s horrific residential school system through the divergent yet unified stories of her characters, crafting a multilayered novel filled with yearning and hope.

These Indigenous stories are perfect for your book club, from a history of Native comedians to the true story of a murder in colonial Pennsylvania.
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From 1932 to 1942, Joseph C. Grew served as the United States ambassador to Japan, where he was devoted to cultivating peace between the two countries. Despite his extraordinary efforts, he left the post in 1942 following six months of internment in the Tokyo embassy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Author Steve Kemper draws on a wide range of sources, including Grew’s memoirs and diary, diplomatic messages and Japanese accounts of events, as he recounts the lead-up to America’s involvement in World War II in Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor.

Grew was an unlikely career diplomat. His background—Boston, Groton, Harvard—indicated a different path, perhaps a career in business or banking. But he sought adventure. On his way to assume new duties in Tokyo, he wrote in his diary that of all his 14 posts, Japan “promises to be the most adventurous of all.”

Kemper takes readers behind the scenes to see the complex realities that Grew coped with on a daily basis. He tried to alert America’s leaders to the challenges of Japan’s increasing militarism and fervent nationalism while doing what he could to keep their foreign policy in check. Where he was open-minded and pragmatic, his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, had a fundamental distrust of Japan. Grew strongly protested Japan’s many devastating acts against Americans, but he was also concerned by the ignorance of American isolationists and pacifists at home who saw the U.S. as a warmonger. 

On January 27, 1941, long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ambassador first heard the rumor that if the Japanese government broke with the United States, it would plan a surprise mass attack. He passed that word along to the U.S. State Department—however, the Navy had already studied the possibility of a Pearl Harbor attack and considered it unlikely.

Grew’s tireless efforts to avert war with Japan demonstrate both the value and the limitations of any one person in international power politics. This enlightening and well-written history should be of interest to a wide range of readers.

Steve Kemper’s splendid portrait of the American ambassador to Japan during the lead-up to World War II will be of interest to a wide range of history lovers.

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