Making the Best Years of Our Lives: The Hollywood Classic That Inspired a Nation by Alison Macor – review

Real life heroism and Hollywood ambition combine to create a groundbreaking representation of PTSD

Cover of Making the Best Years of Our Lives by Alison Macor

Making the Best Years of Our Lives: The Hollywood Classic That Inspired a Nation by Alison Macor. University of Texas Press, June 07, 2022.

In this comprehensively researched book, film critic Macor (Rewrite Man: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren) explores the development and production of the Oscar-winning film, one of the first to address PTSD in war veterans. Fresh from serving as a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, director William Wyler chose the film as his final project under contract to legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn. Macor deftly balances an account of Wyler’s wartime hearing loss with the experiences of Harold Russell, a paratrooper who lost both hands, cast in the film’s pivotal role, showing how both men struggled with a loss of confidence and difficulty readjusting to a postwar life. Drawing on interviews with cast and crew, the author reveals the production’s off-screen dramas, including the contentious creative relationship between Wyler and Goldwyn, and Wyler’s brushes with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though the book is full of juicy Hollywood details, this is ultimately the triumphant story of how Wyler and Russell channeled their trauma into a project that brought personal and professional satisfaction to them and a greater awareness of veterans’ issues to the American public. VERDICT: An eloquent testimony to the power of film.

Library Journal, June 17, 2022

The Crossroads of Civilization: A History of Vienna by Angus Robertson – review

Opposing forces of war and diplomacy, as well as the legacy of one of Europe’s oldest ruling families, shape a city in this thoroughly researched nonfiction history.

Cover of The Crossroads of Civilization by Angus Robertson

The Crossroads of Civilization: A History of Vienna by Angus Robertson. Pegasus Books, August 02, 2022.

Scottish government figure Robertson’s first book is a comprehensive history of Vienna, the city where he worked for over a decade as a journalist. Tracing the evolution of the city from its origins as a Roman military camp, Robertson depicts Vienna as a resilient survivor, enduring invasions, wars, and fortunes that shifted with every change to Austria’s political structure. The city’s history is inextricable from that of the Habsburg dynasty, and Robertson devotes considerable attention to the family’s role in European power struggles and to the successes and failures of individual rulers. Drawing on the writings of diplomats and their families, Robertson paints a vivid picture of the glittering social swirl of the Imperial court and the ways in which Vienna influenced—and was influenced by—composers and artists like Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Klimt. In recounting the upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries, Robertson highlights Vienna’s role as a mediator between east and west, a haven for both refugees and spies. VERDICT: Robertson packs so much history onto every page that casual readers may feel overwhelmed, but serious scholars of Viennese or European history could hardly find a more thorough resource.

Library Journal, June 01, 2022

Shadowlands by Matthew Green – review

Themes of memory and loss surround crumbling villages and abandoned islands in this eerie study of Britain’s lost communities.

Cover of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

Shadowlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Cities and Vanished Villages by Matthew Green. Norton, July 2022.

Starred Review

First-time author Green’s haunting travelogue through Britain’s disappeared places is both an examination of the historical forces that led to their abandonment and a meditation on the presence of absence in physical and emotional landscapes. From the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Scotland’s Orkney Isles, nearly perfectly preserved beneath the coastal sands, to the Welsh village of Capel Celyn, drowned beneath the waters of a reservoir, Green skillfully imagines what life was like in each location before its demise. He contrasts visions of vitality with the melancholy stillness of each site’s present state. In the 13th century destruction of Winchelsea, a once-prosperous port swallowed up by encroaching tides, Green sees a timely warning of environmental disaster, while the poignant story of Wharram Percy – a village that faded away in the years after the plague – serves as a reminder of how world events can upend local economies. In each case, Green evokes the deep loss felt by the displaced as livelihoods, traditions, and cultures disappeared along with the communities that supported them. VERDICT: Through these slices of British history, Green has woven a moving exploration of impermanence, memory, and the hypnotic allure of the past.

Library Journal, June 01, 2022

Into the Great Emptiness by David Roberts – review

Cover of "Into the Great Emptiness" by David Roberts

Into the Great Emptiness: Peril and Survival on the Greenland Ice Cap by David Roberts. Norton, July 2022.

Starred Review

This superb book by the late Roberts (The Bears Ears: A Human History of America’s Most Endangered Wilderness), who passed away in 2021, reintroduces the public to the Arctic explorer Henry George “Gino” Watkins and his exploits, focusing particularly on the 1930–31 British Arctic Air Route Expedition. In 1930, in support of a proposed air route from Europe to North America via Greenland, the 23-year-old Watkins and his team set out to explore the island’s forbidding east coast and establish a weather monitoring station in the middle of its ice cap. Roberts recounts how the ambitious expedition turned into a rescue operation in the spring of 1931, when repeated efforts to relieve the solitary team member manning the station were frustrated by snowstorms, failing equipment, and unrelenting ice. Balancing a suspenseful account of the expedition with an overview of Watkins’s life, Roberts searches for the key to the explorer’s prodigious resolve, ultimately finding the contrast between the London bon vivant and the daring leader as compellingly mysterious as did Watkins’s contemporaries. VERDICT: Placing Watkins and his team among the esteemed ranks of polar heroes like Shackleton and Scott, this is an essential read for enthusiasts of Arctic exploration and survival.

Library Journal, May 27, 2022

Born to Be Hanged by Keith Thomson – review

Cover of Born to Be Hanged by Keith Thomson

Born to Be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune by Keith Thomson. Little, Brown, May 2022.

Starred Review

Novelist Thomson (Once a Spy) follows a motley crew of English pirates on a voyage of plunder along the Pacific coast of South America in this rollicking historical account drawing on the contemporary journals of seven participants. Accepting a legally dubious “commission” from the chief of a local tribe, the 366 buccaneers—including naturalist William Dampier—trekked through the mountainous jungles of the Isthmus of Panama to rescue the chief’s captured granddaughter and raid the riches of Panama City. Spared the treacherous passage through the Straits of Magellan, the pirates proceeded to wreak havoc on Spanish ships and settlements throughout what were then known as the “South Seas,” scoring one improbable victory after another until stunned Spanish authorities finally fought back. Thomson fleshes out each audacious attack and narrow escape with wit and insight, delving into seafaring terminology and the customs of piracy as he relates the buccaneers’ brushes with mutinies, storms, and deadly flora and fauna. By focusing on the individuals who kept accounts of the adventure, Thomson humanizes the “Brethren of the Coast,” shedding light on their motivations, histories, and relationships. VERDICT: Every action-packed page is certain to thrill connoisseurs of piracy and seafaring history.

Library Journal, April 01, 2022

The Hated Cage by Nicholas Guyatt – review

Cover of The Hated Cage bt Nicholas Guyatt

The Hated Cage: An American Tragedy in Britain’s Most Terrifying Prison by Nicholas Guyatt. Basic Books, April 5, 2022.

Starred Review

Guyatt (North American history, Univ. of Cambridge; Bind Us Apart) has written an engrossing account of a little-known incident from the War of 1812 in which over 6,000 Americans were held as prisoners of war in England. American sailors previously impressed into the Royal Navy found themselves locked away in the fearsome Dartmoor Prison alongside privateers caught in the act of attacking British ships. Rather than presenting a united front against their common enemy, the Americans were divided by issues of loyalty, national identity, and race. Although high-ranking white officers requested the separation of Black sailors, Guyatt draws upon the contemporary journals of prisoners to show how the segregated block became the vital center of the prison’s economy, culture, and acts of resistance. With great sympathy, Guyatt depicts the daily deprivations and mounting tensions inside the prison as the sailors’ imprisonment stretched beyond the end of the war, thanks to an ineffectual consul in London and a government that turned a blind eye to their suffering. The inevitable result, Guyatt argues, was an explosion of violence that cost nine American POWs their lives. VERDICT: A powerful depiction of race relations, international politics, and governmental neglect in the early years of the American republic.

Library Journal, March 01, 2022

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman – review

Cover of Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman. Beacon Press, March 9, 2021.

Journalist Zimmerman’s (Basic Witches) collection of powerful essays examines misogyny through the framework of Greek mythology, pinpointing how such stories were coded to reinforce patriarchal fears. In monsters like Lamia, Chimera, and Scylla, Zimmerman identifies the personification of traits that are threatening to men and male power. Ambition and desire—for food, sex, attention, or respect—are depicted in the voracious, man-devouring appetites of Charybdis or the Harpies’ thievery. Women’s bodies that do not conform to male standards of beauty are represented in the cursed gorgon Medusa. Zimmerman shows how the embodiment of these characteristics in mythic figures has allowed the patriarchy to sustain an equivalency between women’s empowerment and that which is monstrous, dangerous, or unnatural. Worse yet, Zimmerman shows, women have subconsciously internalized these parallels and continue to alter their behavior to conform to standards acceptable to men. VERDICT: While the personal experiences Zimmerman draws on are by no means universal, there is plenty here for any woman to relate to. Her wit and eloquence, as well as her understanding of these myths, make for persuasive and empowering reading that will have women embracing their inner monsters.

Library Journal, March 01, 2021

The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by Ann McCutchan – review

Cover of The Life She Wished to Live by Ann McCutchan

The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling by Ann McCutchan. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., May 11, 2021.

Writer McCutchan’s (Marcel Moyse: Voice of the Flute) biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling is both an exploration of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s life and inspirations and an insightful look at the ups and downs of the creative process. McCutchan reveals American journalist and writer Rawlings (1896–1953) as an iconoclast who shunned traditional female roles and modes of behavior, to the disappointment of her ambitious and controlling mother. Inheriting her father’s desire for farm life, Rawlings purchased a Florida orange grove in her early thirties, immersing herself in the culture and dialect of her rural neighbors and shaping her fiction around the theme of our uneasy coexistence with nature. Drawing upon Rawlings’s abundant surviving correspondence, McCutchan doesn’t shy away from exposing the temperamental behavior that often strained her subject’s relationships with friends and lovers, or the frequent mood swings—exacerbated by illness and excessive drinking—that complicated her work habits. McCutchan balances this by showing how Rawlings encouraged and inspired fellow writers, recognized and wrestled with her own racial prejudices, and became an advocate for conservation. VERDICT: A comprehensive, well-researched portrait of the life of Rawlings and her creative struggles that will engage a variety of readers.

– Library Journal, February 01, 2021

In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire by Laurence Bergreen – review

Cover of In Search of a Kingdom by Laurence Bergreen

In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire by Laurence Bergreen. HarperCollins, March 16, 2021.

Bergreen (Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius), who followed the tragic course of Ferdinand Magellan’s around-the-world voyage in his bestselling Over the Edge of the World, now tells the story of another circumnavigation, this one undertaken by English pirate Francis Drake. Unlike Magellan, Drake survived his journey, returning to England with a fortune in gold and other valuable goods looted from the ships of England’s arch-nemesis, Spain. Bergreen shows how Drake’s successful piracy proved crucial to the survival of the cash-strapped reign of Elizabeth I, who unofficially endorsed Drake’s raids on Spanish shipping and territories. The exploits of El Draque (The Dragon, as he was known to Spanish sailors) proved pivotal in encouraging England’s command of the seas and imperial ambitions, though personal profit was of more importance to Drake than selfless patriotism. Elizabeth is as much a force in the narrative as Drake, with Bergreen recounting the machinations of her court to give full historical context to Drake’s marauding. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is marred by inconsistencies in chronology and repetitions that detract from an otherwise compelling story. VERDICT: An intriguing-but-flawed exploration of an often-overlooked aspect of Elizabethan history.

Library Journal, January 22, 2021

The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor by Clive Irving – review

Cover of The Last Queen: Elizabeth II's Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor

The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor by Clive Irving. Pegasus Books, Jan. 05, 2021.

English journalist Irving (Scandal ’63: A Study of the Profumo Affair) brings insider experience to this look at the reign of Elizabeth II (b. 1926), exploring the House of Windsor’s relationship to the press through decades of national change and private scandal. A Fleet Street veteran, Irving recounts with firsthand knowledge the evolution of the British press from complicity in guarding the royal family’s secrets to viewing the royals as a commodity to be exploited, a change the monarchy was ill-prepared to handle. The Queen remains an enigma to Irving, displaying none of the vulnerability that the more media-savvy Princess Diana used to win hearts and sympathy: a strategy that Irving contends may have protected her own reign but doomed the monarchy to irrelevance. Though Irving credits the Queen for the House of Windsor’s endurance, she is conspicuously absent for most of the narrative. Instead, Irving reveals a tone-deaf, reactionary monarchy consistently out of step with more dynamic figures including prime ministers such as Winston Churchill, other royals such as Princess Margaret, and the British public itself. VERDICT: A gossipy, yet critical look at the monarchy by a skillful writer who knows his subject well. Fans of The Crown will especially enjoy.

Library Journal, January 01, 2021