Do we read by seasons? To some degree, we probably do. Summer promises the opportunity to do pack a stack of books that otherwise might not fit in the schedule. Every serious reader needs to read some books just for the sheer thrill of reading. A good book brings more than pleasure, of course, but pleasure in reading is not to be taken lightly. In this list I suggest some new and current books that brought me pleasure and satisfaction as I read them, and as I now share them with others. The list is heavily weighted to history and historical biography. No apologies there — these are the books I recommend this season for summer reading. Each earned its way on this list. By the end of the summer, perhaps you will have your own list to share as well.
1. Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (New York: Crown Publishers).
The list of authors whose non-fiction books make their way to almost every best-seller list is short, but Erik Larson is surely found among them. Larson has written a series of best-sellers, including In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City. Each is well researched and incredibly well told. Dead Wake is no exception. Larson tells the story of one of the greatest maritime disasters of all time — the sinking of a great ocean liner by a German U-boat. The sinking of the Lusitania is a great human tragedy, and it is tied to the story of a world at war, and of the United States finding its way in a dangerous modern world. Characters include the captains of both vessels and President Woodrow Wilson, along with a host of others. Readers will be griped by an important story that is incredibly well told. Larson brings the story to life in the centennial year of the attack and sinking. Once you begin, don’t plan to put this book down for long.
Schweiger recorded the encounter at 12:15 p.m. Half an hour later. he surfaced and returned to his westward course, to continue his voyage home. Conservation of fuel was now a priority. He could not delay–the journey back to Emden would take another week. By now the weather had cleared to a degree that was almost startling. “Unusually good visibility,” Schweiger noted; “very beautiful weather.” On the horizon, something new caught his eye.
2. Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Story of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones (New York: Harper Collins).
Imagine a young boy, just five years old, standing on the gallows waiting to be executed in retribution toward his father, who had abandoned him to his fate. The boy was so young that he did not understand what he was facing, and he seemed to be fascinated with the weaponry of his executioner. Escaping the gallows, perhaps because his father’s powerful enemies could not bring themselves to execute a boy so young, William Marshal grew to become one of the greatest knights of medieval history — a powerful figure of war and authority to whom five English kings would, to a considerable degree, owe their thrones. William Marshal’s story is well told by Thomas Asbridge, who takes his readers into the tumult and tenor of the medieval world. This is a world so distant from our own, but perhaps not so distant as some might think.
There is no way of knowing whether the actual experience of being a hostage and facing the threat of death–or, perhaps, more importantly, his subsequent recollection upon these events–left any enduring psychological marks. Perhaps the repeated telling of the tale represented some kind of defense mechanism or coping device, but William may equally have judged his father’s actions, and his own predicament, as a natural consequence of medieval war. It is notable, however, that in later years William never placed his own kin, nor even his knights and retainers, in such a position of forsaken peril.
3. Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (New York: Basic Books).
The Ottoman Empire was once the most powerful in the world–and one of the most lasting. Its demise would come only in the conflagration of the Great War. The story of the fall of the great Islamic empire, one of the most complex and fascinating in world history, was one of the most significant and lasting effects of World War I, and we now know that it set the stage for the world as we know it today. Eugene Rogan traces the history of the Ottomans but his particular focus and skill comes as he tells the story of how the Ottoman Empire sided with the the Central Powers and met disaster. In telling the story he also explains how the Middle East as we know it today came to be. Today’s headlines–and urgent world concerns–make much more sense after reading this important work. The Fall of the Ottoman Empire is a captivating tale, filled with sultans, pashas, viziers, and generals, told by a skilled historian and writer.
The Ottomans has lost the great War. It was a national catastrophe but not unprecedented. Since 1699, the Ottomans had lost most of the wars they had fought, and still the empire had survived. Yet never had the Ottomans faced such a constellation of interests as they did in negotiating the peace after the great War. Caught between the conflicting demands of the victorious powers and Turkish nationalists, the Ottomans ultimately fell more as a result of the terms of the peace than of the magnitude of their defeat.
4. Robert Middlekauff, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
Do we need yet another major work on George Washington? The short answer to that question is an emphatic yes. Washington was larger than life to his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, and he remains one of history’s most fascinating figures. The great achievement of Robert Middlekauff is the way he tells the story of Washington and the American Revolution in a way that combines the best skills of a biographer with the critical sights of an historian. Middlekauff brings Washington to life to a degree that very few modern authors have achieved, and readers who think they know George Washington very well will soon discover that there is far more to know, and every bit worth knowing. Middlekauff leaves Washington where he thought he would be left, with the Revolution secured–at least tenuously, and Washington free to return to his beloved Mount Vernon. He was not to remain in a quiet life of farming for long, of course, and we can only hope that Middlekauff will follow Washington’s Revolution with the rest of the story.
All the time that he served as commander of the Continental Army, he was in fact also the leader of the Revolution. His unspoken and undefined responsibilities in this role transcended those of his assignment as commander in chief, and he became, as the war developed, a symbol of the freedom the young republic embodied. He was the political leader of the Revolution, though he drafted no legislation and signed no laws,. But if he failed, it was widely understood, the Revolution failed.
5. Charles Spencer, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I (New York: Bloomsbury Press).
Sometimes a book appears and the reader simply has to ask why this book had not been written before. There are histories aplenty of the revolution that toppled the Stuart monarchy in England and took King Charles I to the scaffold. And yet, no one has really told the story of that revolution and regicide and then followed the story to the restoration of the Stuarts after the fall of the Protectorate and then to the absolute determination of King Charles II, son of the beheaded king, to track down the regicides and bring them to his violent judgment. In any event, no one has told the story so compellingly as Charles Spenser has done in Killers of the King. This is as interesting a book of history as any reader is likely to enjoy, and Spencer takes his reader right into the debates of that tumultuous age, when life and death would hang in the balance for a king and then for his killers. This was a violent age that set the course of British history and would, eventually, touch both sides of the Atlantic.
Charles consistently overestimated the strength of his hand and the patience of his enemies, as he played Parliament, the army and the Scots off one another. He felt sure that none of these competing forces could achieve what they wanted without his support. At the same time, he felt no qualms of conscience about his many deceits: all was being extracted from him under duress, while he was in effect a prisoner. The king believed this negated his concessions: he fully intended to go back on any promises made, once his freedom was restored. He wrote as much, repeatedly, in letters he intended for sympathisers on the mainland. Many were intercepted. As the conditions of his confinement became stricter, it began to dawn on Charles that Governor Hammond was not his protector, but his gaoler, and that he was under house arrest.
6. David McCullough, The Wright Brothers (New York: Simon and Schuster).
Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, twice awarded with the Pulitzer Prize, David McCullough is an institution of sorts and a legend in his own time. Few writers of history achieve his stature, and McCullough’s ability to make an epoch or an individual come alive is truly remarkable. In that sense, we should be particularly glad that McCullough has written The Wright Brothers. The world as we know it would not exist without manned flight, and the Wrights are central to that story. Nevertheless, the Wright brothers seem, if we are honest, less interesting than their invention. McCullough’s achievement in this book is to make Wilbur and Orville Wright more interesting than most histories of flight and most biographers have yet revealed. Many people will read this book simply because David McCullough has written it. Fair enough. McCullough could, we imagine, make any subject interesting. But in The Wright Brothers McCullough makes us want to know even more about these determined brothers as he tells the truly compelling story of the birth of the flying machines that make the modern world possible.
Success it most certainly was. And more. What had transpired that day in 1903, in the stiff winds of the Outer Banks in less than two hours time, was one of the turning points in history, the beginning of change for the world far greater than any of those present could possibly have imagined. With their homemade machine, Wilbur and Orville Wright had shown without a doubt than man could fly and if the world did not yet know it, they did…. As they crated up the damaged Flyer to ship home, the brothers were “absolutely sure” in their own minds that they had mastered the problem of mechanical flying. But they also understood as no one else could know how many improvements were needed, how much more they themselves needed to learn about flying so different a machine, and that this would come only with a great deal more experience. The Flyer would go into storage in Dayton. It would never be flown again.
7. Deborah Cadbury, Princes at War (New York: Public Affairs).
World War II remains a focus of intense historical interest, and it became so even before it was over and victory in both Europe and the Pacific had been secured. The uncovering of crucial intelligence information in recent years has led to the confirmation that the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, was, at the very least, working against the interests of his own nation and its allies before and even during the war. Many of the books about the relationship between King George VI, father of the reigning monarch, and Edward VIII, the abdicated king he followed the throne, have been sensationalistic and lacking in substance. Princes at War is the most substantial telling of the story to appear after the release of the intelligence data on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the book takes the reader into some of the most dangerous days of the twentieth century. The book is a study in character, told through the lives of the characters who sat on the throne of Britain at a time when it really mattered.
Adolf Hitler and his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, savored the prospect of a tour of Nazi Germany by Britain’s ex-king. Of all the pieces moving swiftly across the chessboard of European diplomacy, the former king turning up in the heart of Berlin was an unexpected bonus. Hitler had known of the duke’s pro-German views for some years, not least through the duke’s own relatives. A German grandson of Queen Victoria, Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg, a member of the Nazi party and the Brownshirts, had agreed to spy for Hitler as early as 1936. Mingling unobtrusively with the royal family when they mourned the death of George V at Sandringham, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg had extracted from the untried new king, Edward VIII, much useful information for the Fuhrer.
8. Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (New York: Doubleday).
We take our view of the world for granted. It just makes sense to us to imagine the globe with polar ice at both the North and South Poles. But that view of Earth, so fixed in our minds now, is barely a hundred years old. In the late nineteenth century, some of the brightest minds of the day sincerely believed that a warm ocean of navigable waters was to be found at the North Pole. Major maritime nations were in a race to reach this sea and to claim its riches. Add to this the fact that any number of adventurers and explorers were ready to risk their lives and the lives of others to reach the North Pole, in particular, and to find glory in their exploits. In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of the tragic but heroic voyage of the U.S.S. Jeanette and her captain, George Washington De Long. Hampton Sides narrates the story very well, and explains why “Arctic Fever” was so contagious in the great Age of Exploration. Readers will never again look at the globe and see that polar mass of ice without remembering this story.
De Long was even starting to doubt the cherished concept of the Open Polar Sea. The implacable ice did not appear to be a mere “girdle,” or an “annulus,” that one could simply bust through. It seemed to stretch out forever, and the pressures locked up within the pack suggested unimaginably huge expanses of even thicker ice. “Is this always a dead sea?,” he wondered. “Does the ice never find an outlet? Surely it must go somewhere. I should not be surprised of the ocean had frozen over down to the equator. I believe this icy waste will go on surging to and fro until the last trump blows….” The Jeanette expedition had begun to shed its organizing ideas, in all their unfounded romance, and to replace them with a reckoning of the way the Arctic truly was. This, in turn, led De Long to the gradual understanding that an endlessly more perilous voyage lay ahead. They might reach the North Pole, but almost certainly they were not going to sail there.
9. William C. Davis, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – the War they Fought, the Peace they Forged (Boston: Da Capo Press).
This work of dual biography tells the stories of two of the most titanic figures of American history. William C. Davis turns to the drama and depth of the Civil War to illuminate our understanding of the war’s two most significant generals, Grant and Lee, and, though them, to reshape our understanding of the war they fought and the nation they shaped. The American Civil War represents a battlefield of history and argument, and Grant and Lee are often considered as a focus of argument or iconic symbol. Both were real men, with real lives, real passions, and real beliefs, and they shared the unspeakably brutal reality of real war. Both continue to shape the American experience, and this book’s great value is in considering Grant and Lee together. The pathos of their stories, inextricably linked, will come through to every reader. This is not merely their story, but ours as well.
Grant and Lee were not men of big ideas. They reflected little, if at all, on man and his place in the universe, the nature of democracy, or freedom, or liberty, They were two one-time Whigs turned quasi-Democrats, at least in spirit, with one of them now drifting in the crisis back toward the Republicans. Competing loyalties drove Lee, yet he always knew that there was only one way for him to turn in the end. Even as he felt himself nearing the close of a career he regarded as largely unsuccessful, now he looked ahead to a service he dreaded but could not refuse, in a cause he deplored, and which he feared might only cap his professional failure with personal and regional ruin. He was not a happy man and had not been for some years. He saw nothing ahead but questions for himself and his people, all at risk of being answered disastrously. For his part, Grant knew the face of failure intimately, but was finally achieving at least a kind of basic security and domestic stability he had not known before. He may not have been prosperous, but he was happy. The crisis brought no tugs on his loyalties. From the moment of the firing on Fort Sumter he saw through all secondary matters, like family or party alliances, that there was only one question and only one answer, and his was the Union at any cost. Each man embraced instinctive feelings about what it meant to be an American and what his country ought to be. Within a matter of hours in the bloom of springtime, each committed himself to war to try to give those feelings life.
10. Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
Most Americans know that the nation was born at the cost of a revolution. Fewer know that the revolution did not produce the form of government that emerged, years later, in the form of the Constitution of the United States. Ellis rightly refers to the emergence of our constitutional order as the “Second American Revolution.” Author of an important book on the revolutionary generation, Founding Brothers, Ellis reminds us of the incredible achievement that the Constitution was — and is — and of the compelling story of how that achievement came to be. The Revolution won independence for the colonies. The “Second American Revolution” won a nation and a constitutional republic. Against the “progressive” school of American history, popular for over a half-century, Ellis argues that the motivating concerns of the constitutional framers were political and not merely economic. This is refreshing. He argues convincingly that four men were most responsible for this second revolution and its success — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Even readers who will disagree with some points of Ellis’s constitutional interpretation (I did) will agree, appreciatively, that he has told the story very well.
My argument is that four men made the transition from confederacy to nation happen. They are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. If they are the stars of the story, the supporting cast consists of Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris (no relation), and Thomas Jefferson. Readers can and should decide for themselves, but my contention is that the political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.
Reading is an individual act that, at its best, overflows into our relationships, conversations, and generous sharing. Good books make us think as we read and reflect. The best books make us think deeply, without the overwhelming sense that thinking is what we are doing. Enjoy reading worthy books, summertime or anytime.
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