Notable Winter Books

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The Gun
By C. J. Chivers
The most lethal and influential weapon of the cold war, argues C. J. Chivers, a former Marine and now a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, was not the nuclear warhead and infrastructure behind it but the AK-47, a cheap, handheld, Soviet-made automatic weapon that could be used effectively by the “mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained” to “push out a blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields.” More than 100 million AK-47s and its derivatives have been made—making it the rifle of choice among guerrillas, freedom fighters, child soldiers, terrorists, and criminals the world over.
Chivers’s story begins with Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim, discussing their pioneering efforts in developing the machine gun. While the West proved slow in developing this new technology, the Soviet Union worked feverishly to create an automatic weapon that could be carried easily by a single soldier. Chivers dispels the myth created by Soviet propagandists that the AK-47 was created by the tinkering of a lone junior army officer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, but rather was the result of an immense state-coordinated effort.
While the American military initially scoffed at the AK-47 as crude and unimpressive, it turned out to be a brilliant compromise: power and accuracy traded off for simplicity of operation, indestructibility, and dependability. When the West finally realized the AK-47’s effectiveness, American designers hurriedly introduced the M-16, a weapon based on a faulty test prototype. In Vietnam untrained communist fighters bested crack American soldiers, whose M-16s jammed in the humid jungle conditions.
Chivers’s excellent book leaves us with a disturbing perspective on the AK-47’s remarkable effectiveness: “Their widespread presence empowers unflagged and undisciplined forces to commit human rights abuses on a grander scale, raises the costs and exacerbates the dangers of peacekeeping missions, emboldens criminals of many sorts, stalls economic development, and increases the social burdens of caring for the wounded, the orphaned, and the displaced.” (Simon & Schuster, 481 pages, $28)
 
Atlas of the Transatlantic 
Slave Trade
By David Eltis and David Richardson
Few episodes in the history of international trade approach the magnitude of profit and geographical scope of the 366 years of the African slave trade. Many books have been written about the Middle Passage and the extraordinary cruelties of slavery, an institution fueled by Europeans’ desire for sugar, cotton, tobacco, rice, gold, and silver that only slave labor could cost-effectively produce and extract. Yet not until publication of this atlas has anyone attempted to describe the economics and geographies of the transatlantic slave trade through maps and charts.
These maps show—in a way that narrative alone cannot—that nearly every European nation with an Atlantic coastline engaged in the trade, and every North and South American colony provided a market.
“Participation in the transatlantic slave trade before the 19th century was shaped by opportunity, not morality,” explain the authors. Using business records, Eltis and Richardson have mapped the mortality rates that rose in accordance with the duration of the voyage. Other diagrams show the value of shipping captured children, who were packed into ship decks in greater quantities. Slavers factored in the high costs of protecting their crews from their human cargo: slaves taken from Senegambia and Sierra Leone proved more rebellious, so the slavers instead plucked their quarry from the Gold Coast and West Central Africa. Finally, as European countries abolished the trade one by one and enforced antislavery laws, the costs overtook profits, and the trade ended.
The pages are interspersed with artwork and firsthand accounts that put the mapped statistics into context. Excerpts include descriptions of branding, sickness, crowded conditions, and the many horrors accompanying enslavement. (Yale University Press, 336 pages, $50)
 
The New York Times Complete Civil War, 1861–1865
Edited by Harold Holzer and Craig Symonds
“Victory At Bull’s Run—Sumter Avenged” reads the July 22, 1861, New York Times headline, not exactly squaring with the widely held view today that the Confederates won that early battle. One of the joys of reading this anthology of more than 600 of the paper’s war articles, including battle reports, election predictions, and editorials, is in seeing how often the fog of war spread over the whole countryside as journalists wrestled to report on unfolding and confusing events.
Articles appear in chronological order within a three-column-per-page format that re-creates the experience of reading the original newspapers. The editors have also added numerous illustrations, maps, and photographs, which did not appear in the newspaper.
Highlighted pieces include a series of hopeful telegraph dispatches sent from the Gettysburg battlefield as the battle heated up. Another story heaps praise upon 1864’s Tennessean vice presidential candidate Andrew Johnson, who later became the first president that Congress impeached. Other articles include the announcement of Lincoln’s assassination and editorials that fret about the increasingly violent acts staged by the “Kuklux Committee.”
The companion DVD-ROM disc contains the entire corpus of the Times’s war coverage—104,000 unedited articles, grouped by date and searchable by keyword and phrase. (Black Dog & Leventhal, 512 pages, $40)
 
Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War
By A. J. Langguth