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Capsule Reviews, June 2014: From the Vault

Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)

[originally posted 12Dec2001]

Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law dominate the movie poster.

War is hell. But war is pretty hell.
photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s hard to tell what you’re going to get when you find yourself watching a Jean-Jacques Annaud film. Some of his output deserves instant classic status; some should never have seen the light of day. Enemy at the Gates balances on the thin line between the two, but does eventually manage to fall on the side of the former.

Annaud teams up with Alain Godard (as in most of his truly fine efforts) to offer up a screenplay about two snipers, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and Major Konig (Ed Harris) during the 1942/43 siege of Stalingrad. The two are backed by a solid cast of minor characters, including the off-kilter-genius casting of Bob Hoskins as Krushchev. And while Annaud and Godard use the story of Zaitsev to examine the pros and cons of propaganda, they thankfully never lose focus on the real story– two guys trying to kill each other while a war rages around them. It doesn’t sound all that interesting when stripped down, and there are certainly a few places where the film drags, but overall it works much better than one would expect it to. Jude Law is, as always, a pleasure to watch onscreen, and Ed Harris gives one of his better performances (though he can’t seem to decide if he’s supposed to be speaking in a German accent or not). Worth a rental. *** ½


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Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (2011): The Winners Lose

Joseph A. McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (Oxford University Press, 2011)

full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.

Ronald Reagan's profile looms over a photo of a strike in the early 1980s on the book's cover.

The end of an era.
photo credit:

I was born in 1968. So in 1981 I was thirteen years old, and I was growing up in a staunch Republican family (though one who preferred to get their news from MacNeil and Lehrer; I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile that). I was not terribly politically aware, partially because of the atmosphere in which I was raised and partially because the entire idea of politics was something of a mystery to me and I didn’t really understand how Presidents were any different than kings or something like that. So at the time, when my parents, who are still staunch Reaganites, dismissed the entire ATC strike as something that needed to happen and was good for the country, it never occurred to me to question that, and by the time I did become politically astute enough to wonder about it, the entire incident had faded not only from my conversation at home, but from the media, and slipped into obscurity to the point where I had forgotten it even happened. So when this came across my Vine emails, I grabbed a copy because I had only the vaguest memories of the incident at all, much less how it might have changed America.

What a dash of ice water to the face.

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Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999): Cornwell’s Dope

John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999)

[originally posted 14Nov2001]

Pius XII heads for a meeting with Der Führer on the book's cover.

“Don’t you think a red carpet was a bit…tactless, boys?”
photo credit: Wikipedia

I feel guilty abandoning this book. The subject matter is tailor made to suit my tastes, and so many reviews of the book have focused, incorrectly, on Cornwell’s seeming obsession with attacking the Roman Catholic Church and his methods of research, that I couldn’t imagine not liking it when I picked it up. But quite simply, Hitler’s Pope is an unmitigated disaster.
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Witchcraze (1994): Build a Bridge Out of Her!

Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze (HarperCollins, 1994)

[originally posted 11Jul2001]

An artist's rendition of two Puritans suspended from the gallows adorns the paperback cover.

“If she weighs the same as a duck…she’s made of wood!”
photo credit:

I mentioned on a discussion board a couple of weeks ago that I’d started this book, and was immediately told by three different feminists to drop it as fast as possible. So as I continued on, I did a little outside research, and what I found was appalling, to say the least. After reading enough of the book to find myself agreeing with its naysayers, it got added to the pile for the Fifth Annual Gahan Wilson Bookburning (named for Gahan Wilson’s late and much-lamented book review column in the now-defunct Twilight Zone magazine; September’s column was his reviews of those books he’d read over the year that deserved to be converted into heating material).
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Battleship (2013): The Siege of Ascot

Dorothy Ours, Battleship: A Daring Heiress, a Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)


Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.


Battleship galloping (presumably during a workout) at Ascot on the cover of the book.

He doesn’t look like a runt in this picture, but he was dwarfed by horses he would eventually leave in his dust.
photo credit: Goodreads

This is the stuff Hollywood dreams are made of, but Hollywood never made a picture of it, despite there being a Hollywood connection to this tale (more on that later). Why? Because, I’m guessing, when Sam Goldwyn and his lot heard the story, they collectively snorted and said “it may be true, but audiences will never believe it!” And to be fair, it does stretch the imagination—but the evidence is all there.

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History of Grand-Pré (1989): Your Denial Is Bolstered by Your Dreams

 John Frederic Herbin, History of Grand-Pré (Herbin Jewellers, 1898)


photo credit: yours truly

All that’s left is a single cross, and that only thanks to Herbin.

The Acadian Disapora of 1755 is an oft-neglected point in North American history; I’ve discovered a few books about it, though aside from Herbin’s, all of them seem to have been written in 1990 or later. (The most recent as of this writing, Christopher Hodson’s 2012 study The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History, looks especially interesting.) Herbin’s history came out a century before that. The introduction to the 7th edition, printed in 2003, is a bit sketchy, but I believe, reading between the lines, it has been in print more often than not in the ensuing hundred fifteen years. The idea that an event of this magnitude—think of it as a North American version of the Armenian genocide of 1915 or the Khmer Rouge’s ethnic cleansing policies in Cambodia—could have been represented for almost one hundred years with a single book is staggering to me, but that seems to have been the case. As far as the book itself, goes, to me, it seemed to raise more questions than it answered, but as a starting point for more research, it is indispensable; Herbin was the descendant of one of the few Acadians left in Nova Scotia at the time he penned this book, and that gives him a perspective on the events that, while obviously biased, is unique, and almost impossible for any nonfiction writer working today to emulate.

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Jefferson and the Gun-Men: How the West Was Almost Lost (2000): The Trip to Bounty-ful

M. R. Montgomery, Jefferson and the Gun-Men: How the West Was Almost Lost (Crown, 2000)

photo credit: Barnes and Noble

Into the great… what? open.

[originally posted 19Sep2000]

There is a common misconception among readers that history is dry stuff. Dates are to be memorized for tests, names blend together, and it’s all forgotten at the end of the term. This misconception has a lot to do with history textbooks, which often are lists of names and dates, but it can also be traced to non-academic history books. Let’s face it, the majority of history researchers are more comfortable finding facts than relating them. That’s why coming upon an author like Montgomery is as refreshing as it is; he can spin a tale.
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