RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewJeff Shesol’s Mercury Rising highlights this fragility in a refreshing narrative that captures the sometimes dispiriting realities of America’s debut in space ... In the end, Shesol argues, Kennedy embraced a dramatically expanded space program not out of genuine conviction of its value so much as a desire to bolster national prestige at a time when many Americans believed the Soviets held the upper hand in the Cold War ... An expert on presidential oratory and a onetime White House speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Shesol is the author of well-regarded histories of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 plan to expand the Supreme Court and Lyndon Johnson’s bitter relationship with Bobby Kennedy. Yet Mercury Rising is at least as successful when it departs the White House and zeros in on the other, less familiar man at the center of the story, John Glenn. Shesol dutifully relates the arc of Glenn’s life ... Mercury Rising relates such details, not to mention the blow-by-blow of Glenn’s three orbits around the Earth, with verve, revealing Shesol’s extraordinary talent as a storyteller. The only downside is that Shesol rarely breaks from his rollicking narrative to lay out the larger context or to engage the big questions his story poses ... Yet Shesol’s story raises inescapable questions about whether space exploration is quite what its enthusiasts have often claimed.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... a book amounting to International Affairs 101 ... The book eschews any interest in academic theories, which Haass gratuitously dismisses as \'too abstract and too far removed from what is happening to be of value to most of us.\' Instead, he promises a practical guide to help everyday people understand global forces in which their lives are increasingly enmeshed, even if they do not always know it or like it ... The result is a fair-minded and thorough, if somewhat bloodless, compendium that, by design, contains little likely to surprise informed readers. Condensing so much complexity into a lucid 400 pages is no small accomplishment, but it’s easy to wonder whether more colorful prose or probing analysis might have better fulfilled Haass’s goal of inspiring interest in his subject ... Haass’s restrained approach does not mean that the book lacks big takeaways ... Haass makes his only really eyebrow-raising move in the final section of his book, where he considers tools like alliances, international law and institutions like the United Nations that governments might use to impose order on a chaotic world. He deals effectively with these topics, demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of each as an order-making possibility. In a curious departure from the cautiously didactic approach he pursues elsewhere, however, he concludes with a plea for renewed American leadership on the world stage, backed by American military muscle, as the best bet for stability and progress in the years ahead...Haass passes too quickly over some of the impediments to realization of such a vision. Does the United States any longer possess either the material strength or international appeal to claim a leadership role? ... Haass views education as the path to the renewal he espouses. But it could be that many Americans, weary of draining overseas commitments and anxious to concentrate on problems closer to home, might weigh the costs and benefits of global activism and make a different choice.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"... monumental ... [Hastings\' approach to the war is] a depressing but also curiously refreshing and mostly convincing way of thinking about the war. All too often, as Hastings points out, historians have treated it as a morality play pitting the forces of justice against the forces of repression ... The main problem with Hastings’s focus on the human toll of the war is his tendency to underplay the motives that led all sides to consider it worth waging. The result is sometimes to flatten decision makers into callous villains and everyone else, both soldiers and civilians, into victims ... Hastings could have written a more complete account by addressing these themes in greater detail. Actually, closer attention to the big ideas that drove each side might have reinforced his central point by underlining how much damage was done in the name of competing ideologies that meshed poorly with the needs of Vietnamese society. But Hastings is hardly wrong to place the emphasis on consequences rather than motives. In fact, he deserves enormous credit for helping us, half a century after the peak of the fighting, to see beyond old arguments about which side was right.\
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewDrawing on an astonishing array of sources, Kotkin paints a richly variegated portrait, delving into Stalin’s peculiar personality even while situating him within the trajectories of Soviet history and totalitarianism more generally … Slowly but inexorably, Kotkin teases out his subject’s contradictions, revealing Stalin as both ideologue and opportunist, man of iron will and creature of the Soviet system, creep who apparently drove his wife to suicide and leader who inspired his people … Who exactly were Stakhanovites, Chekists and Orenburg Cossacks? Kotkin provides little help. Also daunting to nonspecialists may be Kotkin’s tendency to drop the names of numerous Soviet officials who surrounded Stalin without drawing out their personalities or backgrounds. These are, though, mere quibbles. The book deserves the broad audience it may struggle to find and will surely stand for years to come as a seminal account of some of the most devastating events of the 20th century.
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
MixedThe Washington Post...[an] exceptionally engaging, if not wholly satisfying, companion book ... It’s unquestionably an appealing formula, and Ward’s companion book, a visually stunning tome weighing in at more than 600 pages, overflows with moving profiles of not just soldiers, sailors and airmen, but also doctors, nurses, prisoners, journalists, activists, mere bystanders and more ... These portraits are accompanied by a spectacular array of photographs likely to be the book’s most striking feature for many casual readers ... Ward is less successful when examining those leaders, who get little of the nuanced, sympathetic attention reserved for the book’s cast of lesser-known characters ... In places, this narrative is superb. Ward draws skillfully, for example, on recent studies by historians who have conducted pathbreaking research into the Vietnamese side of the war...Still, Ward’s account of decision-making offers little that is entirely new and fails to probe many of the fascinating controversies driving inquiry into the war these days, a missed opportunity to add something of value beyond the television program.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeBowden’s account of the battle delivers gut punches from start to finish. With scrupulous attention to detail drawn partly from dozens of interviews with American and Vietnamese veterans, Bowden weaves a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of the initial communist takeover of Hue and then, in the book’s most powerful sections, the grueling block-by-block struggle by US Marines to recapture it from an enemy hunkered down in a labyrinth of ruined buildings and debris-strewn streets. Most impressive of all, Bowden deftly blends clear descriptions of complex troop movements with careful attention to the human impact of the fighting. Bowden could have done more to illuminate the experiences of Vietnamese troops and the civilians caught in the crossfire, and he has surprisingly little to say about communist executions of suspected political opponents in Hue, the most controversial aspect of the battle over the years. But he masterfully captures the mix of bravery, fear, cruelty, generosity, and fatalism that swirled among the Americans who never knew where the next bullet would come from.