History/Biography from Thomas Cromwell to the Great Society to the Death of Tin Pan Alley | Nonfiction Previews, Jan. 2015, Pt. 3

Borman, Tracy. Thomas Cromwell. Atlantic Monthly. Jan. 2015. 336p.ISBN 9780802123176. $30. BIOGRAPHY
Here’s a nonfiction account of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s invaluable adviser, to go with the fictional account that Hilary Mantel has provided in the Man Booker Award winners Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies. Borman has special insight (and an audience-pleasing touch) as joint chief curator of historic royal palaces and chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

Bunjevac, Nina. Fatherland: A Family History. Liveright: Norton. Jan. 2015. 160p. ISBN fatherland9781631490316. $19.95. MEMOIR/GRAPHIC NOVEL
Working in graphic format, Bunjevac unfolds the recent history of the Balkans by telling the story of her family—and reveals some painfully conflicted parenting along the way. Her father was compelled to leave Communist Yugoslavia for Canada in the late 1950s owing to his rigid Serbian nationalism, which grew so intense (he eventually joined a terrorist organization) that in 1975 his wife returned to Yugoslavia with toddler Bunjevac and her older sister. Bunjevac is back in Canada now; this work is being compared to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Copeland, Cyrus. Untitled on Iran: A Son’s Search for His Father, the Forgotten Iranian Hostage. Blue Rider. Jan. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780399158506. $27.95. MEMOIR
In 1979 Tehran, Copeland’s father, a Westinghouse executive, was arrested on espionage charges and put on trial for his life in a Revolutionary Court—just about the time Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy by Islamist militants. His Iranian mother and her family were left desperately lobbying for his release. Here, Copeland goes after the truth—was his father really a spy? Of course the promotion references the Academy Award–winning Argo.

Horn, Jonathan. The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History. Scribner. Jan. 2015. 384p. ISBN robertelee9781476748566. $28. BIOGRAPHY
An arresting fact is the crux of this work by former White House presidential speechwriter Horn: Robert E. Lee was the son of George Washington’s most famous eulogist and the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child. This biography emphasizes the personal drama as well as the consequences inherent in Lee’s decision not to embrace Washington’s hard-forged Union and how Washington himself left the country with the legacy of slavery that finally led to war.

Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Liveright: Norton. Jan. 2015. 416p. ISBN 9780871407818. $28.95. HISTORY
Despite multitudinous books on the Civil War, there’s very little about the fate of Union veterans, who triumphed on the battlefield but often lost out at home as they dealt with amputated limbs, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and alcoholism. A close-up account drawn from letters, diaries, essays, and gut-churning medical reports.

Katz, Pamela. The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Jan. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780385534918. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385534925. BIOGRAPHY
A screenwriter, novelist, and adjunct professor of film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Katz is fluent in German. So she certainly has the wherewithal to visit the Weimar Republic and reconstruct the lives of cutting-edge artists Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, creators of The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Key to the portrait: katzpamactresses Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife and famously Threepenny’s Pirate Jenny) and Helene Weigel (Brecht’s wife) and writer Elizabeth Hauptmann (Brecht’s mistress, secretary, and heretofore insufficiently acknowledged literary collaborator). Definite sizzle.

Levy, Andrew. Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece. S. & S. Jan. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781439186961. $25. LITERARY CRITICISM
A great adventure story? A parable about race relations in America? Noted biographer Levy argues that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was neither. Instead, he says, it delineates American anxiety about wayward youth at the time Twain was writing, as well as Twain’s interest in how African American culture had influenced entertainment and commerce. The literati will be debating.

Russell, Jan Jarboe. The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II. Scribner. Jan. 2015. 416p. ISBN 9781451693669. $30. HISTORY
From 1942 to 1948, some 10,000 people were brought by train to an internment camp in Crystal City, TX—all of them German, Japanese, and Italian immigrants and their American-born children. Hundreds were eventually exchanged for other, high-ranking American citizens—diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians, and missionaries—who were behind enemy lines. Russell paints a not-pretty picture by following the fate of two teenage girls, who spent years in the camps with their families and were then sent to war-ravaged Germany and Japan. With a five-city tour to Austin, Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, and Seattle.

Sattin, Anthony. The Young T. E. Lawrence. Norton. Jan. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780393242669. $29.95. BIOGRAPHY
Before T.E. Lawrence became Lawrence of Arabia, he was a stumbling young archaeologist from Oxford who fell passionately in love with the Middle East on his first visit there. Noted British journalist Sattin uses letter, diaries, and contemporary accounts to introduce us to a Lawrence we never knew.

Wolf, Hubert. The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal. Knopf. Jan. 2015. 512p. tr. from German by Ruth Martin. ISBN 9780385351904. $30. HISTORY
It sounds like sheer sensationalism, but the story related by leading papal scholar Wolf actually took place in the mid-1800s at the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome. There, the convent’s dazzling young mistress, Maria Luissa, forced young nuns into lesbian initiation rites (poison appears to have been the unfortunate fate of the unwilling) while entertaining an erotic bsiderelationship with the young theologian Pater Peters. Wulf’s reaction to stumbling upon this shocking story in the archives: “It felt like discovering Troy.” Interestingly, the Pope commuted the sentence eventually given a disgraced Pater Peters, who went on to craft the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Yagoda, Ben. The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. Riverhead. Jan. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781594488498. $27.95. BIOGRAPHY/COMPOSERS
George and Ira Gershwin. Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. In the first half of the 20th century, these composers and more produced so many great American songs that they are collectively known as the Great American Songbook. But by the Fifties much of the output had become pop-pulpy and second-rate. Author/journalist Yagoda explains why, looking at things like the faceoff between ASCAP and Broadcast Music, Inc., and the impact of television and radio.

Zelizer, Julian E. The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Penguin Pr. Jan. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781594204340. $29.95. HISTORYfierce
Ah, the Swinging Sixties, a truly liberal time when President Lyndon Johnson could cakewalk his way to the creation of the Great Society. Not so, says Princeton history and public affairs professor Zelizer; America really was a conservative society back then, and it took a huge fight—and efforts not just by Johnson but by others in Congress given full credit here—to push through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the War on Poverty program, Medicare and Medicaid, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, Public Broadcasting, immigration liberalization, and more. How did this happen in such a short time (just three years), and how have these changes lasted until this day? Read up for some new insights.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.