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  • Jeff Somers 5:00 pm on 2018/06/30 Permalink
    Tags: bnstorefront-history, ,   

    July’s Best History Books 

    There’s no better time to contemplate how the past shapes the present (and the future) than the month we celebrate the birth of our nation. This month, we have a potent list of new history books that help you see the bigger picture, including an investigation into one of the biggest naval disasters ever, the inspiring story of a man held captive by Somali pirates, and the heroic story of Jews who escaped Hitler’s Germany only to volunteer to take up arms and go back to fight the Nazis.

    Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic
    In 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Nearly 900 of the crew survived the sinking—but 600 of them died over the next four days as they floated helplessly in the water. Vladic and Vincent expose the Navy’s incompetence and the effort to cover up the disaster by blaming the ship’s captain, who was court-martialed in a suspiciously quick and secretive action—and who later killed himself. Captain Charles McVay III was eventually proved to be innocent of the charges, but the truth of the Navy’s mistakes and their horrific results have remained largely unknown, until now.

    The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast, by Michael Scott Moore
    Fascinated by the idea of pirates operating in the 21st century, Michael Scott Moore journeyed to Somalia to witness the phenomenon firsthand. He quickly got more than he bargained for when he was kidnapped by those very pirates, who demand a ridiculous $20 million ransom from his horrified mother—and later, from anyone who’d listen. Moore, knowing there’s no way he’d fetch the ransom, settled in for what turned out to be more than two years of captivity, during which he was treated both extremely poorly and with surprising kindness by desperate men never seemed to have any personal grudge against him—they just wanted their money. In this eye-opening look at the conditions that drive men to piracy, Moore’s sangfroid under stress is remarkable—and occasionally hilarious.

    Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, by Condoleezza Rice
    Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice examines democracy and asks the fundamental questions: how do countries become democracies, and what’s the state of democracy in the modern world? She traces the development of democratic institutions and outline the stages societies go through when becoming democratic, and offers cogent analysis of “failed experiments” like Russia, which at one time seemed headed for democracy and now seems doomed to autocracy. Most notably, Rice takes on the election of Donald Trump and analyzes the disruption caused, ultimately concluding that this too is part of democracy, while cautioning that democracy’s survival is never a given and must always be defended—beginning with a defense of its most basic institutions.

    Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, by Richard Ratay
    Ratay’s combination memoir and history lesson examines the role of the classic road trip, using his own family traditions as a jumping-off point. He relates the joyous road trips of his youth, playing games in the back seat of the family car while his parents engaged in an epic battle of wills over when to pull over and get gas. He considers the influence of the road trip and America’s general love affair with automobiles (and the freedom they represented) that prompted constant safety upgrades and the development of the interstate road system, one of the most ambitious, successful infrastructure projects in history. Noting that the nature of the road trip is changing due to smartphones, cheap air travel, and other factors, Ratay’s book is a reminder that sometimes the way things were was better.

    Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, by Bruce Henderson
    During World War II, nearly 2,000 young Jewish men escaped the Nazis and emigrated to the United States, only to join the armed forces and return to fight. Henderson focuses on eight of these men, “Ritchie Boys” who underwent intensive training in order to fight Germans and interrogate German POWs. Their flawless German and intimate knowledge of German culture were invaluable to the Allies, but their work was very dangerous due to their status as Jews, which often saw them killed when other non-Jewish soldiers were spared. This largely unknown aspect of the war underscores the horrors of the Nazi regime while spotlighting acts of heroism fighting against it.

    The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983, by Marc Ambinder
    Ambinder’s book reads like a political thriller and relates a truly terrifying moment in history—a moment that might have ended in horrific nuclear war. To mask vulnerabilities in the United States’ early warning systems, President Ronald Reagan ramped up the nuclear arsenal on the theory that it would intimidate the Russians. Later, during Able Archer ‛83, an annual event where the U.S. and NATO tested their procedures for handing over control of nuclear weapons, the Soviets misinterpreted several new procedures and concluded the U.S. might be using the event to cover up a surprise launch. The U.S.S.R. upped their readiness and paranoia reached a fever pitch before tensions were eased and apocalypse was averted. Even today, nations still possess the ability to destroy the world several times over, making this is a necessary reminder that the people we put in charge of making impossible decisions are often only as good as the information they possess.

    The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas, by Eric Rutkow
    If you’re not aware that a near-continuous network of roads leads from Alaska to Argentina, this book will amaze you. With the exception of a rainforest gap in Panama, the Pan American Highway is the longest drivable road in the world, the product of a century-and-a-half of work, investment, and diplomacy. With photos, maps, and documentation, Rutkow takes us through the fascinating history of the highway’s inception, the challenges it faced during construction, the lives lost along the way, and the effect on the countries the road passes through. Whether you’ve dreamed of driving around the world or simply love world records, this is a remarkable story of a grand achievement.

    The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, by Dan Kaufman
    Wisconsin was once a thoroughly Blue state, a stronghold for democrats, unions, and even socialists. When the Democratic Party alienated many of its supporters with a rightward shift in policies, Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010, ushering in a raft of changes designed to undercut organized labor, eliminate a slate of long-term liberal policies, and cut taxes to the bone. Kaufman conducted exhaustive interviews and performed extensive research to trace the collapse of the progressives in Wisconsin and the impact of the Republican plan to turn the country Red one state at a time. Kaufman also highlights the efforts of organized, liberal citizens to take their state back and reverse its course—efforts that may yet bear fruit.

    The post July’s Best History Books appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ross Johnson 4:00 pm on 2018/06/30 Permalink
    Tags: , bnstorefront-history,   

    The Best Biographies and Memoirs of July 

    The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, by Nelson Mandela, with Sahm Venter and Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela
    Jailed in 1962 for the crime of organizing against the Apartheid government of South Africa, Nelson Mandela wasn’t released until 1990. In the intervening years, he wrote many hundreds of letters: to supporters, to government officials, to activists, and to his family. The letters collected here, many never before published, display the determination, optimism, and sharp legal mind of one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. They also provide insight into Mandela the person, forced to mourn the death of a child through correspondence and watch his family grow up apart from him. In troubled times, his sacrifices, strategies, and beliefs remain relevant.

    The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President, by Sean Spicer
    The history of this American era won’t be written for a long time, but insider memoirs offer some sense of a first draft. Sean Spicer was backstage and on the front lines during the early days of the turbulent Trump administration, maintaining a contentious relationship with the media as White House press secretary. He’s not done, suggesting that press coverage of the campaign, transition, and first 100 days was hopelessly biased against the president. He’s promising to set the record straight with the first major memoir from a Trump insider.

    Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, by Ron Stallworth
    Ron Stallworth’s incredible true story inspired the upcoming film from writer/director Spike Lee and producer Jordan Peele. In 1978, the Klan was again on the rise in the United States, and Stallworth was the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Interested in a growing terrorist threat to the community, he responded to an ad for more information from the local KKK by mail. Instead, he received a call asking if he was willing to join up. During months of investigation, he maintains a phone correspondence with the group, sabotaging cross-burnings, exposing plots, and even forming a relationship with then-Grand Wizard (and current alt-right leader) David Duke. His white partner was tasked to fill-in for Stallworth, when necessary.  It’s a fascinating, harrowing, eye-opening story.

    You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir, by Parker Posey
    Quirky indie-film legend Posey entirely eschews convention with her new memoir (of course she does). The star of films like Dazed and Confused, Party Girl, You’ve Got Mail, The House of Yes, and many more that you haven’t heard of, isn’t just opening up about her past, from her colorful childhood through an unconventional career; She’s telling her story as though the two of you are stuck on an airplane together. It’s a book full of stories, but also recipes, whimsical how-tos. and the actor’s own handmade art. Nothing else would do from the hilarious outsider who became a Hollywood star.

    Godspeed: A Memoir, by Casey Legler
    The story of the multi-talented Casey Legler isn’t entirely one of triumph, and this isn’t by any means a typical sports memoir. A competitive swimmer from the age of 13, Legler went to the 1996 Summer Olympics where she set a world record during the qualifying heat, only to come in 29th during the actual event. At the time, she was living a life of isolation and alienation, an alcoholic caught up in drugs and anonymous sex before finding a path for herself. She’s since been a writer, a restaurateur, and a groundbreaking model for men’s clothes over the course of her fascinating life.

    Papillon, by Henri Charrière
    First published in 1969, the autobiographical novel from French convict Charrière was an immediate sensation and a global bestseller: a Steve McQueen-starring film version was commissioned almost immediately, and a remake with Charlie Hunnam is due later this year. It’s a good time to revisit the story of the writer and petty criminal, wrongly (he always maintained) convicted of murder and sentenced to a penal colony in French Guinea. Over the ensuing 14 years he escaped multiple times, was shipwrecked, adopted by a Columbian native tribe, and made a lifelong friend willing to finance his escapes from a series of ever-more-restrictive prisons.

    Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, by Ibtihaj Muhammad with Lori Tharps
    Age 13 is a bit late to take up fencing if one aspires to the Olympics, particularly for a young Muslim woman in a sport that’s dominated by the wealthy and white. Despite her undeniable talent, Ibtihaj faced opposition at each step of her training and career, becoming both an inspiration and a lightning rod as the first woman in a hijab to compete in the Olympics during the 2016 Summer Games, which took place at the height of that year’s contentious presidential race. As an outspoken Muslim American, she became a cultural icon and one of the country’s most influential athletes.

    Wanna Bet?: A Degenerate Gambler’s Guide to Living on the Edge, by Artie Lange and Anthony Bozza
    In his third book, comedian Artie Lange dives into the lifestyle and subculture of one of his favorite risky pastimes: gambling. Funny and confessional, Lange explores his own addiction alongside a few famous and less-famous friends who share his obsession with the risky nature of betting—on anything. He provides an insider’s view into a world that few of us could ever hope to glimpse, full of bookies, mobsters, athletes, and celebrities. 

    Whose story inspires you?

    The post The Best Biographies and Memoirs of July appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ross Johnson 6:00 pm on 2018/05/31 Permalink
    Tags: , bnstorefront-history,   

    June’s Best Biographies and Memoirs 

    The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, by Ben Rhodes
    For eight years, Rhodes was the insider’s insider at the Obama White House, having begun working with the then-presidential hopeful as a speechwriter in 2007, just as that unlikely campaign was kicking into high gear. From there, he went on to roles as deputy national security advisor and foreign policy advisor. He was present for some of the most consequential moments in that administration, including the Bin Laden raid, and central to shaping many key policies, including the Iran nuclear agreement and normalized relations with Cuba. As a friend and advisor to a president, as well as a writer himself, Rhodes offers a true behind-the-scenes look with novelistic flair.

    Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope: Kerry Kennedy in Conversation with Heads of State, Business Leaders, Influencers, and Activists about Her Father’s Impact on Their Lives, by Kerry Kennedy
    The forthcoming 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination has been attended by a resurgence in interest in the senator, attorney general, and would-be president. His impact on his era was almost as great as that of his brother, and might have been greater still. Here, his daughter shares her own memories and reminiscences side-by-side with those who knew or were influenced by the man. Among those interviewed are Barack Obama, John Lewis, Gloria Steinem, Dolores Huerta, Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett, and many others.

    Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America, by Zachary R. Wood
    At 21, Zachary Wood has placed himself near the center of debates over free speech in modern America: president of the Uncomfortable Learning student group at Williams college, Wood has advocated his own personal policy of open dialogue and debate with anyone, regardless of how much their views might differ with is own. He’s even delivered a TED Talk on the topic, and his memoir discusses his quietly radical philosophy while going into the details of his personal story, beginning with a poor childhood in Washington, DC.

    Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, by Ron Stallworth
    Ron Stallworth’s incredible true story is the inspiration for an upcoming film from writer/director Spike Lee and producer Jordan Peele. In 1978, the Klan was again on the rise in the United States, and Stallworth was the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Interested in a growing terrorist threat to the community, he responded to an ad for more information from the local KKK by mail. Instead, he received a call asking if he was willing to join up. During months of investigation, he maintains a phone correspondence with the group, sabotaging cross-burnings, exposing plots, and even forming a relationship with then-Grand Wizard (and current alt-right leader) David Duke. His white partner was even tasked to fill-in for Stallworth in person when necessary to maintain the charade.  It’s a fascinating story.

    Reporter: A Memoir, by Seymour M. Hersh
    The brand of investigative reporting that made Seymour Hersh famous is an evolving, if not dying, art in today’s fast-paced media climate. From the beginning, Hersh was more than willing to take on the biggest stories and most powerful players on the political scene, from the coverup of the Mai Lai Massacre to Watergate, and, more recently, Abu Ghraib. His confrontational style and willingness to dive into stories that others might consider conspiracies have won him awards, but also courted controversy. In his memoir, Hersh looks back at his career and offers deeper insight into some of the many stories he’s covered.

    My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie, by Todd Fisher
    In December of 2016, millions mourned the unexpected deaths of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within a day of each other. For their fans and admirers, it was deeply sad. But for the family of these two Hollywood legends, the pain was far more intimate. In this memoir, Todd Fisher, the only surviving child of Debbie and singer Eddie Fisher, relates the story of his glamorous childhood with an unconventional mother and the lifelong bond with sister. The book is part personal memoir and part tribute to Debbie and Carrie, as funny as it is poignant as it charts their glamorous, often very weird lives all the way through their final days together.

    Ghostbuster’s Daughter: Life with My Dad, Harold Ramis, by Violet Ramis Stiel
    Another child reflects on a famous father this month—this time on the daughter of multi-talented actor, director, writer, and comedian Harold Ramis, whose films are among the most beloved of recent decades (Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day). Stiel recounts the too-short life of her famous father, and also the story of her unconventional upbringing, in a book that’s part family memoir, part look inside the mind of a comedic genius.

    Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, by Jamie Bernstein
    At the height of his career in the middle years of the 20th century, at a time when a composer could still have an enormous influence on pop culture, none was bigger than Leonard Bernstein. The conductor and pianist had a circle that included the Kennedys, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, and Lauren Bacall, among many others, all they all populate the cast of this memoir. On the centennial of his birth, Bernstein’s eldest daughter Jamie reflects on her childhood with the complex, sometimes troubled man who taught her to love music, and the world.

    Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, by John Callahan and David Kelly
    The title of the late Callahan’s memoir refers to one of his more (in)famous cartoons, an image in which three sheriffs approach an empty wheelchair in the desert. One sheriff says to another: “Don’t worry. He won’t get far on foot.” Which just about sums up Callahan’s warped, controversial, and boundary-pushing career as a cartoonist. That career began at the age of 21 after an alcohol-related car crash severed his spine and left him a quadriplegic. A few years later, he had relearned to use his right hand enough to make the simplistic drawings for which he became famous. This memoir is the subject of a forthcoming film from director Gus Van Sant.

    Whose story inspires you?

    The post June’s Best Biographies and Memoirs appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2018/05/29 Permalink
    Tags: bnstorefront-history, ,   

    June’s Best History Books 

    Give your summer reading a solid foundation with the month’s best new history books, including the incredible true stories of the murder trial that launched Abraham Lincoln’s toward the presidency, Vladimir Putin’s plot to destroy democracy, an exploration of one of the most enduring mysteries in history, and more.

    First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power, by Kate Andersen Brower
    Often overlooked, sometimes derided, and, on 14 occasions, destined to be president, our vice presidents occupy a strange place in our democratic system: limited in power and status, yet imbued with the potential to ascend to the highest levels of both. This book explores both the men who have served in the position and the presidents whose political lives they were tethered to, for good or ill. The result is a fascinating look at a role that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, revealing the personalities and politics that have shaped the course of American history—even if you can’t necessarily name them all. Brower also considers the ways the role has changed over the years, and the men who have influenced those changes through political power, force of will, or simple chance.

    Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher
    It’s possible to forget Abraham Lincoln existed before he was our 16th president—and pursued a very successful legal career. In 1859, he took on what would turn out to be his final case before running for president, a murder trial. A man named Greek Crafton assaulted a man named “Peachy” Quinn Harrison. Harrison responded by fatally stabbing Crafton, and was indicted for murder. Lincoln’s deft defense earned Harrison an acquittal, in part due to his stirring closing arguments. Abrams, chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News, argues this trial provided the momentum to push Lincoln to run for the highest office in the land. Along the way, he underscores how Lincoln’s many talents—public speaking and persuasion chief among them—made him ideally suited to lead the country during its most dangerous period.

    The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, by David E. Sanger
    The use and misuse of cyberweapons—malicious code and weaponized software designed to cripple systems and steal data—has become one of the most active fronts in the invisible war between the United States and various terrorist cells and rouge nations. Sanger traces the decline in America’s power in this sphere over the last few years, arguing we’ve been left largely paralyzed and unable to deploy weapons developed to fight the threat. At the same time, hacking and data theft allowed Russia to meddle with one of the most important elections of recent years, and the United States hasn’t done much to prevent future attacks. The end result is an atmosphere of constant paranoia, of endless attacks and counterattacks that leave no trace and thus get almost no attention from the media—but which could have a terrible impact on all of us.

    Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump, by Dan Pfeiffer
    The cohost of Pod Save America and one-time senior adviser to President Obama offers a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the 2008 presidential campaign and Obama’s eight years in office. Irreverent and smart, Pfeiffer offers anecdotes that, in turn, hilarious, alarming, or simply interesting. Along the way he provides advice to a Democratic party reeling from the Trump victory in 2016, and suggests what must be done to shore up the liberal cause that has struggled to define itself. His considers fake news, social media, and how the Democrats can win future elections in the age of Trumpism.

    The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West, by Malcolm Nance
    While most everyone is aware something happened involving Russia and our electoral process in 2016, Nance (a counterterrorism analyst at NBC) puts forth an argument that it was much more than a stroke of luck or even a simple coordinated misinformation campaign. He outlines what he believes is an aggressive attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to completely remake our democracy and bring the U.S. into an “axis of autocracy.” The portrait of events he paints is alarming and thought-provoking.

    The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family, by Helen Rappaport
    Rappaport examines the slow-motion catastrophe that led to the brutal murder of the Russian imperial family in the wake of the 1917 revolution. Tracing events back decades, she explores the decisions made by the intermarried and incestuous royal families of pre-war Europe that led to the slow response and lack of support afforded Czar Nicholas and his physically fragile family after his abdication. Rappaport argues the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia for centuries, certainly didn’t have to wind up shot by revolutionaries and buried in unmarked graves. The result reads like a dark thriller whose ending you know, but which still holds you riveted to the page.

    The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Lawler
    The first English settlement in America, located on Roanoke Island, vanished without a trace in 1590, leaving behind only a mysterious “token:” the word “croatoan” carved into a tree. Admitting to an obsession with the mystery surrounding this disaster, Lawler describes the landscape of 16th century America and the personalities of the settlers who made the dangerous decision to build a life in a new world. Finding few solutions to the riddle despite exploring fascinating leads, the lack of resolution only underscores the power of this story—which still resonates more than four hundred years later.

    The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, by Naomi Klein
    Klein argues the slow-rolling disaster that still afflicts Puerto Rico months after the dual hurricanes that laid waste to the island is not simply a symptom of incompetence, but rather a cynical strategy designed to drive citizens to the mainland so the island can be remade into a corporate-owned paradise. Klein’s argument is persuasive—she details what she calls “disaster capitalists” who employ tactics designed to make Puerto Ricans feel helpless—but she also finds inspiration in the unexpected resourcefulness of those very citizens, seeking to weather the storm, as it were, with small-scale food production and DIY power infrastructures. Klein expects a collision between the declining power base of the cities and the community bonds of the rural areas will ultimately determine what Puerto Rico will look like a decade from now.

    Fantasyland—How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen
    Looking back over the entirety of American history, from the Puritans through Donald Trump’s presidency, Andersen argues that what many perceive as a sudden, shocking descent into fake news-fueled hysteria is actually the culmination of the journey we’ve always been on. Anti-science, religiously fundamentalist forces have always been there, Andersen argues, tracing events in history that echo the current state of affairs. He argues Trump has set himself up as the president of “fantasyland,” an imaginary America where everything is great and things are only getting better—a story that helped him claim the White House, and may keep him there in 2020.

    The post June’s Best History Books appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 2:00 pm on 2018/05/01 Permalink
    Tags: bnstorefront-history, ,   

    The Best New History Books of May 

    Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Bret Baier
    Baier, chief political anchor at Fox News, examines the role Ronald Reagan played in ending the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and concludes the 40th president was a more subtle politician and statesman than many suppose. Focusing on Reagan’s historic but largely-overlooked visit to Moscow in 1988—where he gave a speech at Moscow State University signaling his desire to see Russia and the rest of the U.S.S.R. pursue true democratic government—Baier argues he was the driving force that lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain and Russia’s eventual pivot towards democracy. Using the titular “three days” as a framing device, Baier recounts the tense summits and closed-door meetings between Reagan and Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and makes a case for a direct link between this largely forgotten forgotten speech and the fall of the Berlin Wall a year later.

    Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, by Zora Neale Hurston
    This remarkable book was written by Hurston long before her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, dating back to a trip she took to Alabama in 1927 in her professional capacity as an anthropologist. There, she met an 86-year old man named Cudjo Lewis—also known as Kossola, the last surviving slave on the last slave ship to make the Middle Passage. Hurston interviewed Kossola extensively, and because he was already 19 when he was sold into slavery, his recollections are sharp and detailed. While Hurston acknowledges in the manuscript that she made no attempt to make it into a rigorous historical document, Kossola’s story is a terrifying glimpse into what slavery—and subsequently the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the racially-charged South of the 20th century—was actually like. It’s amazing to think this book has never before been published.

    The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham
    Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, makes a sober argument that while we might find ourselves alarmed and confused at the current state of politics and discourse in this country, we’re certainly not the first to feel this way. Examining various moments in American history, Meacham makes the compelling argument that while America has often plunged into demagoguery and nativism, it has also almost always eventually followed what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” and sought progress over darkness. There’s a power in knowing that we’ve been here before, and understanding how we found our way back out.

    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
    Harari is no stranger to ambitious works of sweeping historical context, and this is no exception. He tackles the story of how Homo sapiens—that is, us—came to be not just the dominant species on the planet, but the sole human species left standing. Harari argues that three distinct moments of revolution made us masters of the planet: a cognitive revolution that gave us a mental advantage over other human species; an agricultural revolution that allowed us to form permanent settlements and complex societies; and most recently, a technological revolution that allowed us to truly master the world, its resources, and all the other creatures that populate it. Harari thoughtfully weaves in the disturbing question of whether our ascendancy and mastery has actually made us happier—and offers plenty of thoughtful evidence that the answer is no.

    The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies, by Michael V. Hayden
    Hayden, former Director of the NSA and the CIA, examines the current climate of “alternative facts” and the potential threats of a government that seems hostile to expertise and data. The United States has one of the most effective and powerful intelligence communities in the world, capable of supplying the president with the best and most accurate information possible in order to help him make the most terrible decisions imaginable. Hayden examines the consequences of a culture in which a president prefers to fire off social media missives containing untruths and exaggerations, and in which the intelligence community is under direct attack from within. Hayden offers his vision of the many dangers this current scenario opens us to, from the crumbling of the world order, to a decline in the standing and influence of the United States even as countries like China step forward.

    Trump / Russia: A Definitive History, by Seth Hettena
    Every day brings more headlines containing the words “Russia” and “Trump”—and yet more hysteria from both sides of the political aisle. Associated Press reporter Hettena goes back to the origins of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia to walk us step by step through the years, showing how the president and his organization reached out to Russian business interests and government officials in order to stay afloat after the collapse of his casinos left Trump on the verge of financial disaster. Anyone seeking clarity on the events that led to the Special Counsel investigation will want to read this book, which offers a painstakingly researched dive into Trump’s relationship with various Russian actors over the years.

    From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, by Michael McFaul
    McFaul, a longtime expert on Russia’s relations with the U.S. (and a former ambassador to that country), details what he observed firsthand while in Moscow over the course of his career. McFaul argues that the current state of Russian politics, wherein Vladimir Putin is essentially president for life and Russia stands as a steadfast opponent to American interests, wasn’t inevitable; he blames diplomatic and military missteps under the Bush administration for driving a wedge between our countries that led Putin to seek other avenues towards reestablishing Russian global influence. McFaul isn’t a fan of President Obama’s approach to Russia, either, and offers his own assessment of of Donald Trump’s role as a useful tool for Putin.

    When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency, by Donald Rumsfeld
    Rumsfeld, who served as President Ford’s chief of staff and secretary of defense (and who was also Ford’s personal friend) offers a firsthand account of a remarkable, remarkably short presidency. The only person to serve in the role who was never elected either president or vice president, Ford took on a country that had lost faith in government in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s fall. Rumsfeld argues persuasively that if Ford wasn’t totally successful as a chief executive, he certainly managed to stave off political and societal chaos when faith in the office was at an all-time low. Rumsfeld shares a fly-on-the-wall view of Ford’s battle against Ronald Reagan for the 1976 nomination, which now looks like the last gasp of old-school conservative politics before the Reagan Revolution changed everything.

    Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It, by Steven Brill
    Brill, the founder of Court TV, traces what he sees as a five-decade long decline in American society, charting the course of the well-intentioned reforms that have led us here. First making his case that in the modern age, America has become a hollow economy of low-paying jobs with expensive and substandard healthcare, housing, and infrastructure, as well as a society where the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, Brill then goes on to explain how these conditions came about. Things like civil service reform and an effort on the part of universities to be more inclusive seemed like fine ideas when first pursued decades ago, he argues, but each have curdled into tools by which the elite protect their positions at the expense of everyone else. Brill celebrates the people and groups that are attempting to fix what’s wrong, and sees cause for hope going forward.

    The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester
    If celebrating expertise and skill is out of fashion in America in some ways, but that doesn’t stop Winchester—the son of an engineer—from making the argument that the wonders of modern life can be laid at the feet of engineers, for whom precision is a lofty and worthwhile goal. Winchester gives credit for everything from high-tech scientific equipment like the Hubble Telescope to the modern-day automobile to the fearless engineers who slowly built the modern age one piston and perfectly-measured part at a time. Bringing together history lessons, scientific lectures, and often-raucous biographical sketches, he paints a clear picture of the debt the world owes to the thinkers and the tinkerers, many of whom operated outside the boundaries of what was precisely ethical or legal at the time.

    The post The Best New History Books of May appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

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