Book Reviews

Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Vintage, 2013)Barnes and Noble Review & Christian Science Monitor

“Historians, armchair generals, and conspiracy theorists have spent the past century refighting the war, and Hastings engages those debates, adding another layer of vitality to the book. He disputes the idea that a series of mistakes caused the war, instead planting the blame squarely on Germany. He has little time for Niall Ferguson’s “it’s all Britain’s fault” stance or Samuel Williamson’s indictment of the Austro-Hungarian elites.”

Michael Dobbs, Six Months in 1945 (Knopf Doubleday, 2012)Barnes and Noble Review

“Dobbs nicely renders the pile-up of events that marked the final months of the war and reminds the reader of the fallible human beings who later became frozen in memory as stock World War II figures. But he stumbles when it comes to policymaking. The focus on grand milestones and personal eccentricities frequently comes at the expense of the issues under debate, issues that affected the lives of millions of people.”

Guy Gugliotta, Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012)Barnes and Noble Review

“As a Washington, D.C. landmark, the U.S. Capitol presides over my daily routine from atop the hill at the end of the Mall. Even after two decades in the city, catching sight of its white marble dome shimmering in the afternoon sunlight can stop me in my tracks. That’s exactly how Jefferson Davis wanted it. As a senator from Mississippi and then as secretary of war, Davis took a keen interest in the refurbishment and expansion of the Capitol, believing it should be a grand building worthy of the government it represented.”

Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf, 2012)Barnes and Noble Review & Christian Science Monitor

“It’s the first book to comprehensively tackle the subject, a crisply written account hefty in both scope and intellect. As Preston takes on the challenge of explaining in tandem the evolution of America’s religious culture and its foreign policy — each an intellectually dense topic in and of itself — his book buzzes with the resulting frisson.”

Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (Holt, Henry & Company, 2011) | Barnes and Noble Review & Salon

“The mechanics of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry have been examined in detail by historians, and Horowitz admirably covers that familiar ground. What sets his book apart is the attention he pays to the company Brown kept: his beleaguered wife, who bore him thirteen children, was stepmother to seven more, and endured deprivation while he pursued his personal war; the men who trusted him so completely that they followed him to their deaths; and the financial backers, known as the Secret Six, who supported Brown’s zeal, only to recoil when confronted with its consequences.”

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (Knopf/Doubleday, 2011) | Barnes and Noble Review & Salon

“The murder serves as a lens through which to examine Garfield’s life, Guiteau’s peripatetic existence, the fortunes of the Republican Party, the political spoils system, the role of scientific invention, and the state of the American medical profession.  By keeping a tight hold on her narrative strands, Millard crafts a popular history rich with detail and emotion.”

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War(Random House, 2011) | Barnes and Noble Review & Salon

“In the book’s prologue Foreman says that she wanted to write “a biography of a relationship, or, more accurately, of the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War.” Using the tools of a biographer, she adeptly marshals letters, journals, documents, and newspaper accounts to bring to life the men and women who populate her tale. But in the end, despite the vast research and lively writing, the book amounts to a series of well-rendered vignettes.”

Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II (HarperCollins, 2011)Barnes and Noble Review & Salon

“It’s not uncommon for those studying or reading about World War II to ponder the question, “What would I do?” Would I have helped the Jews? Would I have dropped the atomic bomb? Would I have made a deal with Stalin? These moral questions are precisely the ones that concern Michael Burleigh, noted historian of the Third Reich, in his new book, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II.”

Louise W. Knight, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (W.W. Norton, 2010)Barnes and Noble Review & Salon

“One of the pleasures of this book is Knight’s portrayal of Addams’s private life and the web of friendships that sustained her. Knight treats with great care Addams’s relationship with Mary Rozet Smith. Committed to each other for four decades, the two women shared a devotion they regarded as being equal to marriage. Knight relies on letters between the women to reveal the contour of their relationship, while declining to speculate on what happened behind closed doors.”

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace (Penguin, 2010)Barnes and Noble Review & Salon

“Having waged a long campaign with the Russians, Lieven deserves accolades for crafting an insightful and sometimes mischievous book. It will be difficult in the future to discuss the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars or debate what country deserves credit for defeating Napoleon without giving Russia its due. In many ways, Lieven’s book is akin to the works on the Eastern Front in the Second World War that have provided a corrective to the dominant Anglo-American narrative. Hopefully, this is the first of more to come.”

Image: Books by Amos Paul Kennedy, University of Illinois.