NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?

Historians in the News
tags: NYT History Book Reviews

Erik Moshe is a journalist, an Air Force veteran, and a student at Broward College. Visit his site: TheCentersphere.yolasite.com

Book: Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment

Summary (Via Amazon): "Often seen as a political sop to the racial fears of white voters, aggressive policing and draconian sentencing for illegal drug possession and related crimes have led to the imprisonment of millions of African Americans―far in excess of their representation in the population as a whole. Michael Javen Fortner shows in this eye-opening account that these punitive policies also enjoyed the support of many working-class and middle-class blacks, who were angry about decline and disorder in their communities. Black Silent Majority uncovers the role African Americans played in creating today’s system of mass incarceration.

"Current anti-drug policies are based on a set of controversial laws first adopted in New York in the early 1970s and championed by the state’s Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Fortner traces how many blacks in New York came to believe that the rehabilitation-focused liberal policies of the 1960s had failed. Faced with economic malaise and rising rates of addiction and crime, they blamed addicts and pushers. By 1973, the outcry from grassroots activists and civic leaders in Harlem calling for drastic measures presented Rockefeller with a welcome opportunity to crack down on crime and boost his political career. New York became the first state to mandate long prison sentences for selling or possessing narcotics.

"Black Silent Majority lays bare the tangled roots of a pernicious system. America’s drug policies, while in part a manifestation of the conservative movement, are also a product of black America’s confrontation with crime and chaos in its own neighborhoods."

Author: Michael Javen Fortner is Assistant Professor and Academic Director of Urban Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, Murphy Institute.

Reviewer: Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.

Reviewer highlights

"--fascinating though severely flawed..."

"The catalog of tough-on-crime rhetoric that Fortner unearths in Black Silent Majority would have made the early residents of Long Island’s white-by-design Levittown blush."

"In Fortner’s attempt to outflank Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in which she argues that white Americans didn’t end racial caste in the 1960s but simply ‘redesigned it’ with the drug war, he misreads and exaggerates the complex and divergent realities of Northern blacks, increasingly divided by work, class identities and crime insecurity."

"Nowhere does Fortner find the visible hand of racism."

"--to say, as Fortner does, that working- and middle-class black folks ‘renounced racial ties and denounced previously held progressive beliefs’ in the 1960s because of crime victimization overstates the case and oversimplifies black life."

Comments: Fortner wrote a letter to the NYT protesting Muhammed's review of his book, claiming it "attacked what he perceived as my politics instead of seriously confronting its nuanced arguments and evidence." Muhammed responded on social media defending his review, saying "framing 'black on black crime' as causative rather than symptomatic of social divestment and state failure will only yield more criminal justice engagement, whether reformative or retributive. This is the trap we've been in for over a century."

Book: The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

Summary (Via Amazon): "This history encompasses the heart of the Pacific War―the period between mid-1942 and mid-1944―when parallel Allied counteroffensives north and south of the equator washed over Japan's far-flung island empire like a ‘conquering tide,’ concluding with Japan's irreversible strategic defeat in the Marianas. It was the largest, bloodiest, most costly, most technically innovative and logistically complicated amphibious war in history, and it fostered bitter inter-service rivalries, leaving wounds that even victory could not heal.

"Often overlooked, these are the years and fights that decided the Pacific War. Ian W. Toll's battle scenes―in the air, at sea, and in the jungles―are simply riveting. He also takes the reader into the wartime councils in Washington and Tokyo where politics and strategy often collided, and into the struggle to mobilize wartime production, which was the secret of Allied victory."

Author: Ian W. Toll is a writer and independent scholar.

Reviewer: Walter R. Borneman is an American historian and author.

Reviewer highlights

"--a gripping narrative of the central Pacific campaign."

"Toll is strong on the operational details of battle, but he is no less skilled at presenting something that is frequently missing from military histories, a well-rounded depiction of the home front on both sides."

"Toll convincingly argues that the success in the Marianas was pivotal."

Comments: The Treaty that Ended World War II Still Haunts Asia Today

Book: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Summary (Via Amazon): "Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infected Siberia or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Among Humboldt’s most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone.

"Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt’s influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau’s Walden."

Author: Andrea Wulf was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She lives in Britain where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art.

Reviewer: Colin Thubron is a British travel writer and novelist.

Reviewer highlights

“As Andrea Wulf remarks in her arresting [book], it is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

“Wulf is anxious above all to establish Humboldt’s relevance today, and her fluency in German facilitates the sifting of his massive oeuvre for impressive data.”

Comments: A quote from Humboldt: "The tree under which we were seated, the luminous insects flying in the air, the constellations that shone toward the south; every object seemed to tell us, that we were far from our native soil. If amid this exotic nature the bell of a cow, or the roaring of a bull, were heard from the depth of a valley, the remembrance of our country was awakened suddenly in the sound. They were like distant voices resounding from beyond the ocean, and with magical power transporting us from one hemisphere to the other. Strange mobility of the imagination of man, eternal source of our enjoyments, and our pains!"

Book: Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

Summary (Via Amazon): "Before there was Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins or Molly Ivins, there was Mary McGrory. She was a trailblazing columnist who achieved national syndication and reported from the front lines of American politics for five decades. From her first assignment reporting on the Army–McCarthy hearings to her Pulitzer-winning coverage of Watergate and controversial observations of President Bush after September 11, McGrory humanized the players on the great national stage while establishing herself as a uniquely influential voice. Behind the scenes she flirted, drank, cajoled, and jousted with the most important figures in American life, breaking all the rules in the journalism textbook. Her writing was admired and feared by such notables as Lyndon Johnson (who also tried to seduce her) and her friend Bobby Kennedy who observed, ‘Mary is so gentle—until she gets behind a typewriter.’ Her soirees, filled with Supreme Court justices, senators, interns, and copy boys alike, were legendary.

"As the red-hot center of the Beltway in a time when the newsrooms were dominated by men, McGrory makes for a powerfully engrossing subject."

Author: John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at American Progress. Previously, he served as the Washington chief of staff for the International Crisis Group and the director of communications for U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

Reviewer: Ana Marie Cox is the Talk columnist for The Times Magazine, a columnist for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel “Dog Days.”

Review highlights

"Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism will scratch every nostalgic itch with ink-stained fingers. McGrory’s five-decade career covering Washington provides an enormous picture window onto the media landscape, and Norris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, focuses much of his attention on the glamour of the era."

Comments: “I should confess,” McGrory admitted late in her life, “although I probably shouldn’t, that I have always felt a little sorry for people who didn’t work for newspapers.” I've always felt sorry for people who didn't have the opportunity to write for HNN. Touché.

Book: The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle

Summary (Via Amazon): “The Gay Revolution begins in the 1950s, when law classified gays and lesbians as criminals, the psychiatric profession saw them as mentally ill, the churches saw them as sinners, and society victimized them with irrational hatred. Against this dark backdrop, a few brave people began to fight back, paving the way for the revolutionary changes of the 1960s and beyond. Faderman discusses the protests in the 1960s; the counter reaction of the 1970s and early eighties; the decimated but united community during the AIDS epidemic; and the current hurdles for the right to marriage equality.

“In the words of the eyewitnesses who were there through the most critical events, The Gay Revolution paints a nuanced portrait of the LGBT civil rights movement. A defining account, this is the most complete and authoritative book of its kind.”

Author: Lillian Faderman is a historian. Check out her recent Op-Ed for CNN.

Reviewer: Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law. His most recent book is “Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial.”

Reviewer highlights

"Faderman’s book populates even the familiar corners of gay history with new and vivid life.

"Like any account, this one has its blind spots. While it occasionally uses the term L.G.B.T., the dearth of transgender individuals in this narrative is all too typical of ‘L.G.B.T.’ histories. And at the opposite extreme, there are times when the multiplicity of voices threatens to devolve into cacophony. We jump from character to character more swiftly than in a Dostoyevsky novel. But here as there, patience is rewarded. An investment in these pages yields the full complexity of the journey — its contingencies and ironies, its eddies and byways, and its unresolved conflicts.

"Faderman has a gloriously fanatical commitment to illuminating and commemorating her subjects. To read her is like viewing the AIDS quilt, which overwhelms the viewer with the care taken in each of its numberless panels."

Comments: October is LGBT History Month

Book: Kissinger: Volume I. 1923-1968: The Idealist

Summary (Via Amazon): "No American statesman has been as revered or as reviled as Henry Kissinger. Once hailed as ‘Super K’—the ‘indispensable man’ whose advice has been sought by every president from Kennedy to Obama—he has also been hounded by conspiracy theorists, scouring his every ‘telcon’ for evidence of Machiavellian malfeasance. Yet as Niall Ferguson shows in this magisterial two-volume biography, drawing not only on Kissinger’s hitherto closed private papers but also on documents from more than a hundred archives around the world, the idea of Kissinger as the ruthless arch-realist is based on a profound misunderstanding.

"The first half of Kissinger’s life is usually skimmed over as a quintessential tale of American ascent: the Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany who made it to the White House. But in this first of two volumes, Ferguson shows that what Kissinger achieved before his appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser was astonishing in its own right. Toiling as a teenager in a New York factory, he studied indefatigably at night. He was drafted into the U.S. infantry and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge—as well as the liberation of a concentration camp—but ended his army career interrogating Nazis. It was at Harvard that Kissinger found his vocation. “Having immersed himself in the philosophy of Kant and the diplomacy of Metternich, he shot to celebrity by arguing for ‘limited nuclear war.’ Nelson Rockefeller hired him. Kennedy called him to Camelot. Yet Kissinger’s rise was anything but irresistible. Dogged by press gaffes and disappointed by ‘Rocky,’ Kissinger seemed stuck—until a trip to Vietnam changed everything."

Author: Niall Ferguson is a British historian.

Reviewer: Andrew Roberts is the Lehrman Institute distinguished fellow at the New-York Historical Society.

Reviewer highlights

"Although this book is long at 986 pages, and Kissinger has only just joined the Nixon administration as national security adviser when it ends, the sheer quality of the material unearthed justifies the length and detail.

"Of course it will be in the second volume that Ferguson will come to grips with the revisionists’ attacks on Kissinger’s actions involving places like Chile, Argentina, Cyprus, East Timor and Bangladesh. The book’s introduction strongly implies that he will be acquitting Kissinger of the monstrous charge of war criminality that the revisionists have made over the years.

"Niall Ferguson already has many important, scholarly and controversial books to his credit. But if the second volume of ‘Kissinger’ is anywhere near as comprehensive, well written and riveting as the first, this will be his masterpiece."

Comments: Greg Brandin, author of “Kissinger's Shadow” which is next on this list, wrote a piece for Gawker about what he saw as conflicts of interest between the biographer and the reviewer.

The NYT had no choice but to respond with an editor's note. (They had a choice, but they chose the red pill, I'm afraid.)

"Editors’ Note: October 2, 2015

After this review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger was published, editors learned that the reviewer, Andrew Roberts, had initially been approached by a publisher to write the biography himself; he says he turned the offer down for personal reasons, and Ferguson was eventually enlisted to undertake the task. In addition, Roberts and Ferguson were credited as co-authors of a chapter contributed to a book edited by Ferguson and first published in 1997 (Roberts describes their relationship as professional and friendly, but not close). Had editors been aware of these connections, they would have been disclosed in the review."

Gawker also came out with an editor's note concerning Greg Grandin's conflicts of interest. (Ahh, yes, the plot gets thicker.)

They said, in a note to their readers:

"In the process of assigning this post, we were informed that its author, historian Greg Grandin, was having his own Kissinger biography reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. While we were not informed of the date that the review would be appearing, it turns out to be in the same edition of the New York Times Book Review in which Roberts’ essay appears. In its review, the Times described Grandin’s work as a ‘fresh argument that, although more provocative than convincing, amounts to one of the most innovative attacks on Kissinger’s record and legacy.’ This was relevant information that should have been included in the post, especially in a discussion of the ethics around writers’ conflicts of interest. We should have inquired with Grandin as to the timing of the review of his book and reported that fact in the post, and we apologize for failing to do so."

In an e-mail to Newsweek, Grandin weighed in that "I made it clear in the post that I had my own Kissinger book just out. [I] didn't mention the review because it's not relevant and there is no conflict of interest. I'm happy with the review of my book. It was judicious, fair and balanced. No complaints! The only interest that might be impinged on is mine, as I've reviewed often for the Times, and I hope this criticism of its pick of reviewers of Kissinger's biography doesn't jeopardize that relationship."

NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a blog post, revealing much more information.

HNN also covered this ordeal: NYT Book Review slammed for letting a Kissinger pal review Niall Ferguson's biography of Kissinger.

Book: Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman

Summary (Via Amazon): "Examining Kissinger's own writings, as well as a wealth of newly declassified documents, Grandin reveals how Richard Nixon's top foreign policy advisor, even as he was presiding over defeat in Vietnam and a disastrous, secret, and illegal war in Cambodia, was helping to revive a militarized version of American exceptionalism centered on an imperial presidency. Believing that reality could be bent to his will, insisting that intuition is more important in determining policy than hard facts, and vowing that past mistakes should never hinder future bold action, Kissinger anticipated, even enabled, the ascendance of the neoconservative idealists who took America into crippling wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Going beyond accounts focusing either on Kissinger's crimes or accomplishments, Grandin offers a compelling new interpretation of the diplomat's continuing influence on how the United States views its role in the world."

Author: Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and he has served on the UN Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War.

Reviewer: Mark Atwood Lawrence teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is “The Vietnam War: A Concise International History.” This is not his first time reviewing a book featuring Heinz Kissinger.

Reviewer highlights

"A professor of history at New York University and an eloquent voice of the political left, Grandin hits all the topics that one might expect to see in a sharp indictment of Kissinger’s work as national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations."

"The book’s main agenda is to develop a fresh argument that, although more provocative than convincing, amounts to one of the most innovative attacks on Kissinger’s record and legacy."

"Grandin writes with engaging passion — a tone well suited to what is clearly intended as an extended essay rather than a definitive reworking of Kissinger’s life and times — and an admirable desire to view Kissinger within the broad sweep of history. Still, there are problems. For one, Grandin’s description of Kissinger’s worldview is debatable at best. Undoubtedly, Grandin deserves credit for calling attention to underappreciated aspects of Kissinger’s philosophical musings. But he curiously ignores voluminous writings that point toward a more conventional appreciation of Kissinger as an arch-realist."

"As for Kissinger’s ‘shadow’ over recent events, Grandin arguably pays his subject a backhanded compliment by exaggerating his significance since his departure from office. Did later leaders really require Kissinger’s precedent to wage secret wars, violate foreign nations’ sovereignty and prioritize grand displays of power?"

"On the whole, Kissinger’s Shadow raises questions that Grandin does not intend but might indicate a success of sorts in stirring new thought."

Comments: Henry Kissinger and Doctor Doom. (It’s worth the click, seriously.)

For Fun: The Book Review: Who Critiques Whom - and Why?

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