A tightly focused, graphic illustration of the many ways that war is hell.

SHEER MISERY

SOLDIERS IN BATTLE IN WWII

An anecdotal overview of the day-to-day rigors of war as experienced by the common soldier in World War II.

Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, pulls together brutal accounts from soldiers who participated in the “three campaigns [that] left high-water marks for infantry misery: the 1943-44 winter campaign in the Italian mountains, the summer 1944 battles in Normandy, and the 1944-45 winter battles in northwest Europe.” As the author shows with vivid detail, their trials went far beyond exposure to enemy action. The battlefield’s assaults on the senses were unrelenting. Frontline troops faced awful weather, notably during the winter of 1944-45, with only sporadic opportunities to warm up and dry off. In some units, trench foot, caused by chronically cold, wet feet, put as many soldiers out of action as enemy fire, and some lost their feet to frostbite or gangrene. American soldiers’ boots, in particular, were notoriously leaky and ill-fitting. In the chapter entitled “The Dirty Body,” Roberts shows how soldiers were aptly portrayed by Bill Mauldin’s GI cartoon characters Willie and Joe, who deeply annoyed the buttoned-up, spit-and-polish sensibilities of Gen. George Patton. Dirt was antithetical to discipline, Patton thought, but Willie and Joe became heroes to rank-and-file soldiers; a too-clean uniform became a marker of noncombat troops. Because officials were also anxious to keep the dead and wounded out of sight as much as possible, the Graves Registration Service arrived on battlefields shortly after the smoke had cleared to bury the bodies promptly. Photos of the dead rarely appeared back home other than for the purpose of drumming up sympathy and/or anger to help fundraising efforts. Roberts uses her sources to powerful effect, and the illustrations and photos, while sometimes disturbing, add to the narrative impact.

A tightly focused, graphic illustration of the many ways that war is hell.

Pub Date: April 21, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-226-75314-0

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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A valuable contribution to our understanding of one of history’s most vital figures.

THE PRISON LETTERS OF NELSON MANDELA

An epistolary memoir of Nelson Mandela’s prison years.

From August 1962 to February 1990, Mandela (1918-2013) was imprisoned by the apartheid state of South Africa. During his more than 27 years in prison, the bulk of which he served on the notorious Robben Island prison off the shores of Cape Town, he wrote thousands of letters to family and friends, lawyers and fellow African National Congress members, prison officials, and members of the government. Heavily censored for both content and length, letters from Robben Island and South Africa’s other political prisons did not always reach their intended targets; when they did, the censorship could make them virtually unintelligible. To assemble this vitally important collection, Venter (A Free Mind: Ahmed Kathrada's Notebook from Robben Island, 2006, etc.), a longtime Johannesburg-based editor and journalist, pored through these letters in various public and private archives across South Africa and beyond as well as Mandela’s own notebooks, in which he transcribed versions of these letters. The result is a necessary, intimate portrait of the great leader. The man who emerges is warm and intelligent and a savvy, persuasive, and strategic thinker. During his life, Mandela was a loving husband and father, a devotee of the ANC’s struggle, and capable of interacting with prominent statesmen and the ANC’s rank and file. He was not above flattery or hard-nosed steeliness toward his captors as suited his needs, and he was always yearning for freedom, not only—or even primarily—for himself, but rather for his people, a goal that is the constant theme of this collection and was the consuming vision of his entire time as a prisoner. Venter adds tremendous value with his annotations and introductions to the work as a whole and to the book’s various sections.

A valuable contribution to our understanding of one of history’s most vital figures.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63149-117-7

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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In this meticulously detailed and evocative book, history comes alive, and it isn’t pretty.

THE ORDER OF THE DAY

A meditation on Austria’s capitulation to the Nazis. The book won the 2017 Prix Goncourt.

Vuillard (Sorrow of the Earth: Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and the Tragedy of Show Business, 2017, etc.) is also a filmmaker, and these episodic vignettes have a cinematic quality to them. “The play is about to begin,” he writes on the first page, “but the curtain won’t rise….Even though the twentieth of February 1933 was not just any other day, most people spent the morning grinding away, immersed in the great, decent fallacy of work, with its small gestures that enfold a silent, conventional truth and reduce the entire epic of our lives to a diligent pantomime.” Having established his command of tone, the author proceeds through devastating character portraits of Hitler and Goebbels, who seduced and bullied their appeasers into believing that short-term accommodations would pay long-term dividends. The cold calculations of Austria’s captains of industries and the pathetic negotiations of leaders who knew that their protestations were mainly for show suggest the complicated complicity of a country where young women screamed for Hitler as if he were a teen idol. “The bride was willing; this was no rape, as some have claimed, but a proper wedding,” writes Vuillard. Yet the consummation was by no means as smoothly triumphant as the Nazi newsreels have depicted. The army’s entry into Austria was less a blitzkrieg than a mechanical breakdown, one that found Hitler stalled behind the tanks that refused to move as those prepared to hail his emergence wondered what had happened. “For it wasn’t only a few isolated tanks that had broken down,” writes the author, “not just the occasional armored truck—no, it was the vast majority of the great German army, and the road was now entirely blocked. It was like a slapstick comedy!” In the aftermath, some of those most responsible for Austria’s fall faced death by hanging, but at least one received an American professorship.

In this meticulously detailed and evocative book, history comes alive, and it isn’t pretty.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-59051-969-1

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

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