Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens
When the U.S. Army clashed with Native American tribes in the late 19th century, “neither side had a monopoly on cruelty,” said Dan Cryer in the San Francisco Chronicle. In his thorough history of the 1860–1890 Indian Wars, military historian Peter Cozzens aims to complicate our understanding of the conflict. Directly contradicting Dee Brown’s hugely influential 1970 book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Cozzens argues that forced relocation and assimilation were the government’s aims—not genocide. He also finds room to detail Indian atrocities and cite the honorable conduct of some Army commanders. Even so, he does nothing to diminish the scale of the tragedy that ultimately unfolded. Like Brown’s work, Cozzens’ telling “throbs with the pain of Indian defeat and humiliation.”
It’s a disheartening saga, said Douglas Brinkley in The New York Times. During Reconstruction, many tribes were forced west into Army-run reservations just as white settlers began flooding in the same direction to claim land promised to them. When some tribes resisted, Civil War– hardened generals adopted a “morality be damned,” conquer-at-all-costs approach, while lower-ranking officers occasionally added to the carnage by unleashing unjustified massacres of their own. Still, “nobody can accuse Cozzens of candycoating Native American culture.” Though he praises certain leaders, including Sitting Bull and the Lakota war leader Red Cloud, he shows how the tribes ensured their demise by working against one another, and he highlights warriors’ brutality by including, among other gory details, “a graphic description of the art of scalping.”
Too much of Cozzens’ account depends on the more substantial cache of records left behind by the white combatants, said Priyanka Kumar in The Washington Post. Reading The Earth Is Weeping, “I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was being fitted into the boots of the Army”—which was like being asked to sympathize with the thugs sent by a landlord to evict tenants standing in the way of bigger paydays. Worse, Cozzens at one point diminishes the devastation visited on the Sioux by arguing that, having been pushed west from their native land, they were as much newcomers to the Great Plains as the white homesteaders. Even so, he’s delivered a book of impressive detail and scope that never loses sight of the brutality and senselessness of white America’s post–Civil War land grab. “Treachery on such an epic scale can bear many retellings.”
Novel of the week
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
This ambitious novel “showcases its author’s formidable gifts in only half its pages,” said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. When its unnamed narrator looks back on a childhood friendship with another mixed-race London girl, Swing Time “conjures the electric pulse of the 1980s” as well as the push and pull of a complex relationship. But the narrator has spent most of her adult life as a gofer for a Madonna-like pop star, and the pages given to detailing that celebrity’s efforts to build a school in Africa prove “beyond tedious.” Nonsense, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Though Swing Time is more subdued than Zadie Smith’s previous work, it’s easily 2016’s most effective big social novel, combining a portrait of wasted talent with a tale of success that “may be the most perceptive one I’ve read about the distortion field created by fame and wealth.” If the book leaves you sad, that’s because its narrator is “our Nick Carraway.” She’s “burdened with superior insight that grants her nothing but a sharp sense of her own irrelevance.”
Why the Wheel Is Round: Muscles, Technology, and How We Make Things Move by Steven Vogel
(Univ. of Chicago, $35)
Perhaps we have underestimated the wheel, said Michael Lemonick in Scientific American. In this “truly engaging” history of the 5,000-year-old technology we depend on every time we jump in our Camrys or Silverados, closer study of its origins and myriad applications opens a whole new understanding of our world. Steven Vogel, an expert in biomechanics who died last year, reminds us in Why the Wheel Is Round that the eureka moment might not have been when one of our Neolithic ancestors realized that a heavy object could be moved atop rolling logs. More significant was the invention of the potter’s wheel, which seems to have predated the cart wheel and established a method of harnessing rotary motion that underlies virtually every useful machine humans have built.
“This is a wonderful book, in the literal sense of the word,” said Stephen Budiansky in The Wall Street Journal. Vogel encourages us to see engineering miracles everywhere, revealing, for example, why most of our drinking and eating vessels are round and why most screws have right-hand threads. For Vogel, the history of technology is largely the story of humans’ attempts to address a single challenge: how to make muscle power generate rotary motion. That quest produced wheel bearings, gears, and eventually machines that could be driven by power sources like electricity. But among the many pleasures of Vogel’s book are its descriptions and illustrations of “rather astonishing” contraptions that put goats, horses, or dogs on treadmills and used the energy to, say, grind grain or churn butter.
Amazingly, we’ve yet to exploit all forms of rotational motion, said John Moalli and Adam Summers in Nature. Vogel at one point asks us to consider “the zero-angular momentum turn” and its potential usefulness in robotics. He is describing the subtle twist an upside-down cat executes to land on its feet after a fall. And it’s a move worth picturing now, because that graceful maneuver “might serve as a metaphor for the elegance and ingenuity that make this book so fun to read.”