In Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, Richard Serrano tells the story of the last two survivors of the Civil War. It’s the 1950s and both men are in their 100s, still holding on to life and their past glory. One is a former drummer boy for the Union now living in Duluth, Minnesota and the other lives in Texas, having served with General Hood’s Brigade fighting for the South. They’ve both been alive for various Civil War reunions and each hopes to make it to the upcoming Centennial Celebration set to begin in 1961. However, one of them never served for the United States in any conflict and was a mere boy of 5 years old when the Civil War began. Which one really deserves the accolades, including a federal pension, and which is an imposter?
Serrano’s book is full of details about these men and others who claimed to be former Civil War veterans. What is compelling about this narrative is that many records from the Civil War, particularly those of the South, were lost or destroyed over the years. Some men even served and were discharged without official papers. With painstaking research into the records and archives that do remain, including the 1860 U.S. Census, Serrano is able to write an accurate story of the various frauds who tried to claim the glory that was never due to them.
As Serrano posits, the reasons for their deceptions included poverty (many new pension claims from Civil War vets occurred during the Great Depression), a need for fame and an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Some of these men had been telling their stories for so long that they began to believe they were true. Serrano points out that even the most well-intentioned fraud detracts from the countless number of men who served during the Civil War and never got their due.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone is a fascinating companion book to the recent documentary series of the same name. Like the series, the book begins with the story of Juan Garrido, the first known African-born person to arrive in what is now the United States in 1513. The narrative carries through to the present, covering 500 years of African-American history. The book, which is organized in nine chapters that mark distinct periods in the African-American story, brings greater depth to the stories presented in the documentary. In both, Gates highlights the diversity and the resilience of African-Americans by sharing the stories of individuals whose experiences shed light on their time and place in this complex history.
This documentary series is a lifelong dream that Gates was finally able to bring to fruition. He explains,“Since my senior year in high school, when I watched Bill Cosby narrate a documentary about black history, I’ve longed to share those stories in great detail to the broadest audience possible, young and old, black and white, scholars and the general public. I believe that my colleagues and I have achieved this goal through The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The critics agree that it is a success. Both the series and book have been nominated for NAACP Image Awards.
The six-part miniseries, which aired on PBS last fall, was recently released on DVD. This touching and inspiring video clip gives viewers a taste of the storytelling found in this riveting look into 500 years of history.
In September of 1944, in the final year of World War II, a B-24 bomber piloted by Jack Arnett and carrying 10 servicemen plummeted into the western Pacific Ocean near the Micronesian islands of Palau. The wreckage of the plane disappeared, and the men were presumed dead though no bodies were found. Baltimore author Wil S. Hylton examines the quest of the man who worked to unravel the mystery of crash and the fate of the men on board in Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.
In 1993, middle-aged medical researcher Pat Scannon was a novice scuba diver, so when an invitation came to search for the underwater ruins of a sunken Japanese hospital ship supposedly laden with gold stolen during WWII, he was hesitant to accept. While diving on the trip, Scannon saw a wing of a different submerged American plane and became determined to answer the question of what happened to Arnett’s aircraft and crew. He assumed that, due to the massive size of a B-24 bomber, he’d locate the crash site fairly quickly; instead, his detective work spanned more than 10 years.
Hylton documents the details of Scannon’s research utilizing books, government documents, archival material and networking with veterans and military contacts. Yet, Vanished is far more than a paper trail. Particularly compelling are the parallel stories of Scannon, the crew members and their families who had been waiting for nearly 60 years for information about the fate of their loved ones. Vanished is a moving account of one man’s determination to lay to rest with honor a forgotten crew of our country’s airmen.
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.
From the start, American audiences fell in love with Downton Abbey. The opening notes of the theme song strike a familiar chord and the characters seem like people who we really know. The popular show’s fourth season premieres in the U.S. on January 5th on PBS. Following the tragic conclusion to season three, fans are curious as to the fates of the show’s beloved characters. Two new books will whet Downtonites’ appetites as they watch the drama unfold.
In Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, Fiona, the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon shares another chapter in the story of the family that lived in Highclere Castle – the real Downton Abbey. American-born Catherine Wendell married Lord Porchester, known as Porchey, in 1922. Soon, he inherited his father’s title, Highclere Castle and the debt that came with it. The couple was forced to auction family heirlooms to raise the funds to keep the castle in the family. While successful, the couple eventually divorced. Countess Fiona shares their stories complete with enough scandal, intrigue and drama to warrant a BBC production. The book also highlights the interesting role that Highclere Castle played during World War II, at times making the house a character in this family’s story. This is a fascinating look at the period and place that frame the show.
Emma Rowley’s Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey: The Official Backstage Pass to the Set, the Actors and the Drama is a new guide to the show with glossy, never-before-seen photographs. Fans will enjoy photographs of the actors, Highclere Castle, the studio set and the show’s sumptuous costumes. The book also includes interviews with the cast, crew and show’s creative team. Throughout this magnificent companion book, the show’s dedication to historical detail is evident. The cast calls historical advisor Alastair Bruce “The Oracle,” and he takes his job seriously. He meticulously studies the historical detail in every element of a scene, from the props, hair and make-up to the actors’ body language. This video is a lighthearted look at the effort that goes into the show’s historical accuracy.
Fifty years ago the country was rocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His life and tragic death remain a cultural touchstone, and today's anniversary has resulted in a proliferation of published titles on the subject. Three of these new entries shed light on the man, the assassination and his enduring legacy.
Award-winning author James Swanson thoroughly documents the day Kennedy was killed in End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. From the Kennedys’ Texas train trip, to the shooting in Dealey Plaza, to the aftermath awash with confusion, Swanson does not miss a detail. The narrative unfolds hour-by-hour, and the reader is immediately caught up in this riveting account which defines all of the major players, from Jack and Jackie to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The research is remarkable, and the accompanying photographs add heft to this absorbing and important account.
Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis offers a different take on the assassination by focusing on the city which will become inextricably linked with President Kennedy. In a fascinating study, they describe the sociological and political forces which collided to create a tinderbox of activism, along with the colorful characters who stirred the political pot. Included are profiles of oil baron H. L. Hunt, Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey and provocative congressman Bruce Alger.
Parkland by Vincent Bugliosi is a companion to the film of the same name produced by Tom Hanks, released earlier this fall and now available on DVD. Parkland focuses on the aftermath of the assassination by following key players in the hours and days following the shooting. The group of individuals includes the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital, the chief of the Dallas Secret Service and Abraham Zapruder, the cameraman who captured perhaps the most examined footage in history. Bugliosi, also the author of Helter Skelter, successfully delivers a richly detailed narrative of this circle of men and women involved in the historic tragedy of November 22, 1963.
Winners of the 64th annual National Book Awards were announced last night at a black-tie dinner held at Cipriani Wall Street. This morning, the literary world is abuzz about James McBride’s win in the Fiction category for his novel The Good Lord Bird. With a strong list of finalists, many considered McBride’s novel to be an underdog. McBride seemed shocked by the win. He shared that writing the novel became an escape for him during a difficult season of his life. McBride also expressed his pleasure about the win, remarking, “Had Rachel Kushner or Jhumpa Lahiri or Thomas Pynchon or George Saunders won tonight, I wouldn’t have felt bad because they are fine writers, but it sure is nice to get it.”
Mary Szybist was presented with the Poetry Award for Incarnadine: Poems, her second collection of poetry. The award for Young People’s Literature was given to Cynthia Kadohata for her novel The Thing About Luck. George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America won the award for Nonfiction.
Congratulations to all the winners!
By 1942, the United States government had fully committed to the idea of building an atomic bomb. The scope of that project would dwarf any other single undertaking in human history in cost and material. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan details the experiences of 16 women who find themselves wrapped up in the secrecy and inadvertent social engineering of the Manhattan Project.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee was the first of the three biggest Manhattan project facilities and did not exist until the Department of Defense built it. For years, it didn’t even appear on any maps. The town started small, but as the project ramped up there was an increased need for housing, stores, sundries and recreational outlets. By the end of World War II, 75,000 lived in and around Oak Ridge. With so many able-bodied men in the military, women formed a vital backbone to the efforts at Oak Ridge. Some were transported in from the coasts without knowledge of their final destination. Others were from the surrounding area, lured in by the promise of well-paying, if secretive, government work. There were also the women scientists involved in the research, although they were often deprived of the accolades. Many of these women had never been away from home; many had never earned their own salary before. They found themselves someplace where the security and secrecy was oppressive. Some were even recruited to spy on their fellow workers.
Kiernan lets the women tell their own stories, and if many of them are similar, the cross-section is still broad. Especially interesting is the vast difference in experiences based on race, the United States still viciously segregated at the time. It’s also interesting to see how this group of clever young people made a dry county one of the best areas for the production and smuggling of moonshine in the U.S. Many of the women Kiernan interviewed were shocked at the war’s end to realize what exactly they had been working on. Most of them, though, remained in Oak Ridge - at least the town if not the facility.
Art historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.
Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.
Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.
Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.