Shocked and Awed

  ULYSSES S. GRANT By Josiah Bunting III Times Books/ Henry Holt & Company 180 pages ULYSSES S. GRANT The Unlikely Hero By Michael Korda   Atlas Books/ HarperCollins Publishers 161 pages   To me, Ulysses S. Grant has always been the more compelling and attractive of those two Civil War monoliths, Grant and Robert E. Lee. Lee to this day feels a little too posed—straining too hard to be the cavalier ideal, to compensate for his improvident father, or to distract us from the perfect killing machine he really was. It is impossible to imagine Grant, for instance, standing Read More

The Empire Strikes Out

  The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness By Buster Olney Illustrated Ecco/HarperCollins 346 pages   On Nov. 4, 2001, the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks met in the seventh and deciding game of the World Series, a contest that seemed fraught with meaning well beyond the big game. The Yankees were representing a city that still reeked, literally, of burned airplane fuel from the site of what had been the World Trade Center. They had made a gutsy, improbable run through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and on that Read More

They Took Manhattan

  THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto Doubleday  384 pages   ”And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote on the greatest last page in American letters. On the grounds of Jay Gatsby’s abandoned Long Island estate, Nick Carraway broods over the ”transitory enchanted moment man must have held Read More

Black and Blue

  STREET JUSTICE A History of Police Violence in New York City by Marilynn S. Johnson Beacon Press 365 pages   WHEN the City Council last year investigated accusations that the Police Department had been unduly aggressive in containing antiwar protesters, the force declined to send a representative to appear before the council. The message could not have been clearer: when it comes to policing the streets of America’s greatest city, New York’s Finest know better than any civilian authority. This same conflict has been going on since the first professional New York Police Department was created, as Marilynn S. Johnson Read More

Washington Square Murder

    Triangle The Fire That Changed America By David Von Drehle Illustrated Atlantic Monthly Press 340 pages   Before Sept. 11, the most infamous disaster in the history of New York was the Triangle Waist Company fire, which killed 146 garment workers on the afternoon of March 25, 1911. The toll at the Triangle was much lower than at the World Trade Center towers, of course, but the wound was a deeper one because it was largely self-inflicted. As David Von Drehle makes clear in his outstanding history,  Triangle, the overwhelmingly young, female victims of the fire—at least 123 Read More

Very Chilly Scenes of Winter

    THE NAVIGATOR OF NEW YORK by Wayne Johnston Doubleday 483 pages   HOW much do we owe the past? What liberties can we take with the historical record, even when we’re writing something with a ”fiction” label clearly slapped on the cover? And is it permissible to slander the dead in the pursuit of a good story? These are the sorts of questions that historical novelists ask themselves all the time — or, for that matter, that all good storytellers have asked themselves since long before there were historical novelists and the past was a much more quick and Read More

The Man Who Got Away With Everything

  AMERICAN SCOUNDREL The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles By Thomas Keneally Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 397 pages    ”How splendidly they march! It looks like a dress parade,” an onlooker cried as he watched Gen. Daniel Sickles, with full military pomp— flags flying, bugles blowing, drums beating— lead 10,000 men of his III Corps out of the Union line on the second, critical day of Gettysburg, and plant them a good half-mile ahead of the rest of the Army. ”Wait a moment,” replied a less impressed Winfield Hancock, a general who actually knew his business, ”you’ll Read More

The First Slum in America

  FIVE POINTS The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. by Tyler Anbinder Illustrated The Free Press 532 pages   It is an unvarying rule that wherever New Yorkers see trash, they will throw more of it. About 200 years ago, Lower Manhattan was adorned by a pretty five-acre lake known as the Collect. The first steamboat was tested there. Locals would gather to skate on its ice in the winter and picnic along its shores in the summer. By the mid-1700’s, however, the Collect was already rimmed Read More

Log Cabin Values

  ABE By Richard Slotkin Henry Holt & Company 478 pages   Sometimes an author comes up with an idea so simple, yet so striking in its simplicity, that it seems like a little bit of genius. Such is the case with Richard Slotkin and Abe, his novel about the first 23 years of Abraham Lincoln’s life. This is not promising terrain for a novelist. No other American president’s life has been so thoroughly worked over. What’s more, Lincoln was so much larger than life that he has become something like a secular folk saint. What’s left to embroider? Slotkin Read More

Spice Guys

  NATHANIEL’S NUTMEG Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History By Giles Milton Illustrated Farrar, Straus & Giroux 388 pages   ”The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than 10 miles out to sea a fragrance hangs in the air, and long before the bowler-hat mountain hoves into view you know you are nearing land.” So begins Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, in a style that signals history written as a ripping good yarn as clearly as a skull and crossbones run up the mainmast. And a very fine Read More