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  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2017/12/11 Permalink
    Tags: , , history, , non-fiction   

    The Best Non-Fiction of 2017 

    2017 was a tough year for reality, in the sense that many of us spent the year trying as hard as possible to avoid it. But the only way 2018 is going to be a better year is if we learn a few things, and there’s no better way to improve your understanding of the world than via high-quality non-fiction books. It doesn’t get better than the 25 on this list, which represent some of the best writing of the year, and all of it based on reality—or at least someone’s perception of it.

    You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, by Sherman Alexie
    As well as a beloved author, Alexie has been a poet, filmmaker, and screenwriter. He’s won praise and generated controversy for his outspokenness, especially when Arizona recently banned his works from schools as part of a cull of Mexican-American studies programs. His first memoir tackles the complex and difficult relationship he had with his mother. Her death Forced Alexie to confront his bond with the intelligent but often abusive woman he left behind.

    Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden
    Joe Biden, former vice president and possible future presidential candidate, lost his son Beau to brain cancer after a momentous struggle. When Beau was in the midst of his fight against the disease, he made his father promise that he would be all right. Over the next year, Joe Biden served his country while his son slowly lost his battle. In this remarkable memoir, Biden opens up about that period of his life, discussing with disarming intimacy the personal and political struggles he endured while working to make the world a safer place and trying to decide if he would run for president in 2016. Biden’s wisdom and advice for anyone who has lost someone close to them is powerful, and his insights into life’s problems come from someone who has dealt with some of the most difficult challenges in modern times on the world stage.

    Grant, by Ron Chernow
    Pulitzer-winning author Chernow tackles one of our most perplexing presidents with another sharply-written, deeply-researched book. Chernow sets out to prove that Grant, the brilliant general, was a far better president than he’s usually given credit for. Chernow paints a detailed picture of Grant as a man of action who withered in inactivity, a man whose alcoholism followed a unique cycle of binging followed by lengthy periods of sobriety, a man often mistaken for homeless prior to the Civil War who brought a willingness to engage the Confederate armies head on to his tactics that proved to be the key to winning the war. As he did with Alexander Hamilton, Chernow takes a familiar but opaque figure of American history and fleshes him out, revealing the human being under the engravings.

    Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin
    Bringing a level of factual rigor to the legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Dodge City isn’t an easy task; the story of those pioneering lawmen, and the famed gunfight at the OK Corral is slathered with mythic overtones. In this revealing work, Clavin strips away the unnecessary flourishes to focuses on the facets of the story he can verify—and that unadorned tale turns out to be just as fascinating, especially his telling of the lesser-known Dodge City War, a bloodless affair that saw Earp and Masterson return to the area years later to firmly establish the rule of law, once and for all. You might think you know the story of Dodge City’s most famous gunslingers, but like as not, you only know the Hollywood version. Here’s your chance to fix that.

    We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    This collection of essays are drawn from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for The Atlantic during the years 2008 to 2016, roughly paralleling the Obama administration and ending on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. These are the essays that made Coates a figure no serious person could ignore; they trace the evolution of his thought from the optimism of Obama’s first election to the somewhat darker mood of the later years. Coates adds a wealth of background material, including introductions in which he reflects on the essays, notes and background taken from his journals, and even personal stories that expand on and illuminate his themes. Coates is one of our best and most important living writers, and this collection is a must-read for any thoughtful American.

    The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
    Gessen takes a personal approach to tracing Russia’s transformation from collapsed empire into “mafia state,” following four principle figures (herself, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Seryozha, scion of a political reformist, and Lyosha, a homosexual in what is rapidly becoming the most homophobic nation in the world). This intimate focus grants a frightening immediacy to the story of a country that was once perceived as a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism but now seems to have reverted back to its fascist roots. Along the way are plenty of insights into the current political situation around the world, making this as much an important work of history as it is a memoir.

    Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
    Considering how important they were in shaping the modern age, the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s are remarkably little-known today. When the Nation became incredibly wealthy after oil was discovered on their land, more than 20 of its members of were murdered between 1921 and 1926. As public outrage grew, the federal government was pressured into putting the obscure Bureau of Investigation, led by a young Herbert Hoover, in charge of the case. Hoover used the notoriety of these awful crimes to establish what would soon be known as the FBI as the nation’s preeminent investigative body, and himself as its all-powerful chief. Grann, of The Lost City of Z fame, does a marvelous job catching you up on vital history that’s been nearly forgotten.

    Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
    History normally looks back and attempts to say, with certainty, what did or didn’t happen. Harari takes a different approach: looking forward. While admitting that no one can accurately predict the future, he attempts to take all the information on hand and make bold predictions as to the most likely course of future human history—and his conclusions aren’t very reassuring. While he sees plenty of achievements in store for us, his theory is that humanity’s progress is inevitably making us insignificant, resulting in a future where we won’t be in control of our existence—if we’re even still around (the “post-human future” is certainly in the tea leaves.) It’s up to you to decide if Harari makes his case—but whether you agree or not, the time spent with this book is worthwhile.

    Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
    Isaacson begins with the presumption that Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the most creative genius in human history and proceeds from there, digesting more than 7,000 pages of notes da Vinci left behind to produce this biography, and the result is unlike anything else you’ve ever read about the most famous artist of the 15th and 16th centuries. Isaacson paints a portrait of a restless mind that exhibited unusual curiosity and made magical connections between disciplines that had never been made before. At the same time, he shows da Vinci as a man whose always-churning mind could leave many projects unfinished as he dashed from idea to idea. When one of our best modern writers tackles one of the most famous minds in history, it’s time to pay attention.

    Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, by Scott Kelly
    Unless you’ve spent a year in space being studied, you have nothing on Scott Kelly, who holds the current American record for consecutive days off-planet. As a result, Kelly’s thoughts on our space program—including its necessity and utility—are worth reading, as is his description of the challenges that face anyone intending to spend a long time in orbit. In other words, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s really to head into space, Kelly’s book offers the most up-to-date and informative account ever written.

    Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews
    For younger generations, the Kennedy name may no longer be magic, but Chris Mathews does great work to remind everyone just how special the family was at one time. Although JFK gets most of the attention, the Hardball anchorargues Bobby Kennedy was almost as important, and came very close to being president himself—and may well have done so if he hadn’t been cut down in the prime of life, just like his brother. Matthews doesn’t sugarcoat the ruthlessness that made plenty of enemies for Bobby Kennedy, but he also captures the younger Kennedy’s keen intellect and growing empathy for people who were not as fortunate, traits that may have made him a great president.

    The American Spirit: Who We Are & What We Stand For, by David McCullough
    McCullough is one of the most celebrated historians ever. He has written absorbing accounts of the Wright Brothers, John Adams, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge—winning two Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards along the way. A thinker like that naturally makes a lot of speeches, and he compiles here some of his best—speeches made before Congress, before academic audiences, before groups of fellow historians. This is stirring stuff, the sort of of clear-eyed, patriotic rhetoric we need more of in these divisive and confusing times. McCullough brings a calm authority to his words, equal parts comforting and energizing. It is an ideal book to read if your faith in our institutions is fading.

    Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxas
    If you ever doubt that one person can alter the course of history, look no further than Martin Luther, a young monk who sought only to spark debate when he posted his 95 Theses to a church door. Instead, Luther’s startling moment of protest launched what came to be known as the Protestant Revolution and remade the Christian faith. Metaxas offers up a fresh perspective on a man so famous he’s more myth than reality these days, finding the humanity underneath the history.

    The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore
    Any time someone questions the need for laws protecting workers from the deprivations of profit-seeking companies, this story should serve as a lesson. In the early 20th century, more than a dozen women were employed to paint watches with luminous paint made from the radioactive material radium. These women were fine artists, able to manipulate their brushes expertly, often using their mouths to twist them to a fine point in order to do the detail work. Soon after, many began suffering terrible medical problems, including lost teeth and disease jawbones, sparking a decades-long legal and medical battle that redefined worker’s rights and workplace safety.

    Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy
    Stories of World War II often focus on the heroic deeds of soldiers, but newly declassified documents reveal a shadow army of women who also did their part—the codebreakers. Recruited from colleges and secretarial pools for their math skills, these women were set to the task of breaking enemy codes, but their efforts and achievements were top secret, and their stories largely unknown—until now. Battling the expected sexism and hostile attitudes of their male counterparts and supervisors, tens of thousands of women helped to end the war much more quickly than it would have otherwise, and Mundy rescues their stories from obscurity and gives them the credit they deserve. In fact, she makes a solid case that without these women, we might not have won World War II at all.

    Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem, by Bill Nye
    Nye is something of a modern-day polymath, and in this inspiring book (a combination memoir and textbook) he encourages science- and math-minded folks to use their powers for good. Using his own stories as a starting point, Nye tells the tale of a curious, engaged kid who sopped up information about everything, and argues that if you’re like him, you should spend less energy on comic book trivia and more on solving the world’s problems. It’s also crammed full of interesting information and threaded with an infectious optimism and enthusiasm for knowledge.

    Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, by Condoleezza Rice
    We find ourselves at an unexpected point in history, as several events that seemed unlikely—or impossible—have come to pass within our own democracy. Which is why it’s welcome to see a book from someone as accomplished and experienced as Dr. Rice—an academic and former secretary of state—seeking to analyze the history of democracy around the world, and offer an analysis of its present state. Few people can discuss geopolitical events with the gravitas and authority that Dr. Rice can muster, making this an essential book for getting ready for the year to come.

    Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks
    Context is everything. Although they lived at the same time, were born in the same country, and fought many of the same enemies, Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met, and there’s no evidence they ever even read each other’s work. Ricks places these two remarkable men side-by-side, however, and finds common ground in their shared philosophies and hatred of tyranny. A study of the lives of two men who never interacted might seem like a strange approach to history, but the result is a deeper look at the larger picture of culture and society that shaped their views, and the impact each had on the world around them.

    Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
    Despite the fact that grief and loss are experiences we all share, there is remarkably little structure around our processes for dealing with tragedy. Even for a highly successful person such as Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, the sudden, unexpected death of her husband left her wondering how people deal with such events, leading directly to her collaboration with Adam Grant, professor at Wharton and author in his own right. Option B explores the theory and practical application of techniques to help you not only weather grief and survive life’s swerves, but to move on from it and continue to have a meaningful and fulfilling life despite the void left by those we’ve lost. The combination of Sandberg’s raw, personal experience and Grant’s more academic contributions make this a book many will find incredibly fresh and incredibly helpful.

    Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky
    Anyone who’s been around for a while knows that the one rule of human behavior is that it’s often unpredictable and nonsensical—we have plenty of seemingly primitive and instinctive reactions to the world around us. The question of how much free will is a factor in our actions as opposed to how much is ‛programmed’ into us is a fascinating one. Dr. Sapolsky, a professor of biology at Stanford University, explores various scientific disciplines as he tries to answer some of the questions about what rules the often contradictory impulses that rule our behavior. Leavened with humor and written in a clear, easily-digested style, this is a science book that offers plenty of insight into what makes us all tick without numbing you with dense concepts and obscure jargon.

    Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977 – 2002, by David Sedaris
    Any new David Sedaris book is a reason to celebrate. He’s one of our great observers, finding deep meaning and, more importantly, reasons to laugh, in even the most mundane events. For decades now, he’s been celebrating the weirdo in all of us, but he’s doing something different with his latest: presenting excerpts of his own diaries from 1977 to 2002. Fortunately, his past self is every bit as funny and trenchant as his present-day incarnation.

    Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, by Shea Serrano
    Serrano, with an awesome assist from Arturo Torres’ illustrations, offers up a deep-dive love letter to the sport of basketball that every fan should have on hand. Exploring the history and minutiae of the sport, Serrano seemingly discusses every possible aspect, from the sort of debates that fans spend hours chewing on (like how many years Kobe Bryant was the best player in the league) to the arguments that never seem to be settled adequately (like what the precise rules of a pickup game should be). Backed by an obvious (and pure) love of the sport, this often hilarious and always gorgeous book is both a source of hours of reading pleasure and a beautiful work of art to have on display in the house.

    Where the Past Begins, by Amy Tan
    Bestselling novelist Tan’s unconventional memoir finds her on a journey through her own past via spontaneous storytelling: using fluid writing to search through her own memories to reveal the inspirations and traumas that have shaped her works. In the process, Tan reveals difficult truths about her childhood, and makes connections and uncovers memories that she herself was shocked by.

    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
    Tyson is not just one of the smartest men in the world, he’s one of the most personable and charismatic. His book is, therefore, fun. He doesn’t use a lot of scientific terms, but instead explores space, time, and the known universe in simpler ways that even folks who have never had any scientific training will find incredibly easy to understand. It’s like having a conversation with your really smart, really funny uncle.

    We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, by Gabrielle Union
    Actress Union tells her story with wit and sensitivity, a story that includes her struggles as one of a few black students in a predominantly white high school, the devastating rape at gunpoint that almost broke her, and her recovery and pursuit of a high-octane Hollywood career. Union addresses topics including parenting, raising black kids in a culture often perceived as steeped in racism, and teen sexuality—always with disarming humor and perceptive insights that mark this as much more than a typical Hollywood vanity memoir. Without much of a filter, Union comes across as a nuanced survivor who has managed to keep both her sense of humor and her ability to love despite her experiences.

    The post The Best Non-Fiction of 2017 appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2017/12/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , , history,   

    The Best History Books, Biographies, and Memoirs of 2017 

    2017 was a monumental year for the world, and just as great a one for books that look back on how we got to here. These 25 books encompass a wide range of subjects, writing styles, and personalities, but they all have one thing in common—by shedding light on the past (even if only the life and experiences of a single person), they all broaden our understanding of what it means to be living in the world today.

    You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, by Sherman Alexie
    As well as a beloved author, Alexie has been a poet, filmmaker, and screenwriter. He’s won praise and generated controversy for his outspokenness, especially when Arizona recently banned his works from schools as part of a cull of Mexican-American studies programs. His first memoir tackles the complex and difficult relationship he had with his mother. Her death Forced Alexie to confront his bond with the intelligent but often abusive woman he left behind.

    Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden
    Joe Biden, former Vice President and possible future presidential candidate, lost his son Beau to brain cancer after a momentous struggle. When Beau was in the midst of his fight against the disease, he made his father promise that he would be all right. Over the next year, Joe Biden served his country as Vice President while his son slowly lost his battle. In this remarkable memoir, Biden opens up about that period of his life, discussing with disarming intimacy the personal and political struggles he endured while working to make the world a safer place and trying to decide if he would run for president in 2016. Biden’s wisdom and advice for anyone who has lost someone close to them is powerful, and his insights into life’s problems come from someone who has dealt with some of the most difficult challenges in modern times on the world stage.

    Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden
    The 1968 Tet Offensive changed the course of the Vietnam War, and its startling, shocking success more or less made American defeat there inevitable. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese surprise attack during the New Year holiday was not only a military success, but a success of propaganda as their forces were instructed to “behave like winners” as they fought. Bowden digs in to how, exactly, the surprise was pulled off and traces the many threads of consequences that followed, resulting in one of the best books on Vietnam ever written. Bowden expertly walks the reader through the single but momentous action, using several set-pieces to illustrate what the fighting was like on both sides.

    Grant, by Ron Chernow
    Pulitzer-winning author Chernow tackles one of our most disappointing—and perplexing—presidents with another sharply-written, deeply-researched book. Chernow sets out to prove that Grant, the brilliant general, was a far better president than he’s usually given credit for. Chernow has his work cut out for him, but he paints a detailed picture of Grant as a man of action who withered in inactivity, a man whose alcoholism followed a unique cycle of binging followed by lengthy periods of sobriety, a man often mistaken for homeless prior to the Civil War who brought a willingness to engage the Confederate armies head on to his tactics that proved to be the key to winning the war. As he did with Alexander Hamilton, Chernow takes a familiar but opaque figure of American history and fleshes him out, revealing the human being under the engravings—for better or worse.

    Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin
    Bringing a level of factual rigor to the legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Dodge City isn’t an easy task; the story of those pioneering lawmen, and the famed gunfight at the OK Corral, is slathered with mythic overtones. In this revealing work, Clavin strips away the unnecessary flourishes to focuses on the facets of the story he can verify—and that unadorned tale turns out to be just as fascinating, especially his telling of the lesser-known Dodge City War, a bloodless affair that saw Earp and Masterson return to the area years later to firmly establish the rule of law, once and for all. You might think you know the story of Dodge City’s most famous gunslingers, but like as not, you only know the Hollywood version. Here’s your chance to fix that.

    It’s Not Yet Dark: A Memoir, by Simon Fitzmaurice
    A doctor gave filmmaker Fitzmaurice four years to live following an ALS diagnosis in 2008. By 2010, he was at death’s door, and given little hope, but nevertheless chose to take extraordinary measures to stay alive. In the years since, he’s fathered twins and continued to work as a documentarian. Fitzmaurice talks candidly about his daily struggles, but also about the family that sustains him in a life that’s radically different from the one he’d planned for.

    The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
    Gessen takes a personal approach to tracing Russia’s transformation from collapsed empire into “mafia state,” following four principle figures (herself, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Seryozha, scion of a political reformist, and Lyosha, a homosexual in what is rapidly becoming the most homophobic nation in the world. This intimate focus grants a frightening immediacy to the story of a country that was once perceived as a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism but now seems to have reverted back to its fascist roots almost entirely. Along the way are plenty of insights into the current political situation around the world, making this as much an important work of history as it is a memoir.

    Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
    Considering how important they were in shaping the modern age, the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s are remarkably little-known today. When the Nation became incredibly wealthy after oil was discovered on their land, more than 20 of its members of were murdered between 1921 and 1926. As public outrage grew, the federal government was pressured into putting the obscure Bureau of Investigation, led by a young Herbert Hoover, in charge of the case. Hoover used the notoriety of these awful crimes to establish what would soon be known as the FBI as the nation’s preeminent investigative body, and himself as its all-powerful chief. Grann, of The Lost City of Z fame, does a marvelous job catching you up on vital history that’s been nearly forgotten.

    Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
    History normally looks back and attempts to say, with certainty, what did or didn’t happen. Harari takes a different approach: looking forward. While admitting that no one can accurately predict the future, he attempts to take all the information on hand and make bold predictions as to the most likely course of future human history—and his conclusions aren’t very reassuring. While he sees plenty of achievements in store for us, his theory is that humanity’s progress is inevitably making us insignificant, resulting in a future where we won’t be in control of our existence—if we’re even still around (the “post-human future” is certainly in the tea leaves.) It’s up to you to decide if Harari makes his case—but whether you agree or not, the time spent with this book is worthwhile.

    Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
    Isaacson begins with the presumption that Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the most creative genius in human history and proceeds from there, digesting more than 7,000 pages of notes da Vinci left behind and producing this biography. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read about the most famous artist of the 15th and 16th centuries, Isaacson paints a portrait of a restless mind that exhibited unusual curiosity and made magical connections between disciplines that had never been made before. At the same time, he shows da Vinci as a man whose always-churning mind could leave many projects unfinished as he dashed from idea to idea. When one of our best modern writers tackles one of the most famous minds in history, it’s time to pay attention.

    The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, by Dan Jones
    The Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple, known today as the Templars, began existence as a group of impoverished knights who protected pilgrims to the Holy Land in exchange for charity. From these humble beginnings sprang one of the most powerful and influential knightly orders in history. Gaining patronage, property, and political power, the Templars grew so great they were eventually demonized and destroyed by rival powers in Europe. Jones tells the story of the Templars in brisk writing that makes their rise and fall viscerally exciting, informative, and fascinating.

    The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, by Denise Kiernan
    As the conversation about income inequality ramps up, this book is the ideal historical complement. In the late 19th century, George Washington Vanderbilt II was the world’s richest bachelor, and he chose to put his immense resources into building the largest private home ever constructed, a 175,000 square foot mansion sitting on 125,000 acres of land. Uninterested in romance, Vanderbilt nonetheless married the well-bred but impoverished Edith Dresser, who suddenly found herself queen of a city-sized estate. A spice of schadenfreude comes into play as Vanderbilt’s fortunes decline and the family is thrust into the sort of economic downturn that most people would recognize, even if on a vastly different scale, and Edith emerges as a heroine of sorts as she struggles to save her family and her huge, lavish home.

    The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir, by Ariel Levy
    Celebrated writer Levy tells her life story with verve and gusto, exploring as a central theme the way the universe laughs at our plans. As a young child Levy was taught she could do anything, but also warned not to depend on a man for support. As her star rose as a writer for New York Magazine and elsewhere in the 1990s her life began taking unscheduled detours: she married an older woman with substance abuse problems, she conceived a child using a sperm donor but suffered a miscarriage, and she never lost a burning desire to seek adventure and new experiences. The end result is a compelling and compulsively readable memoir.

    Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews
    For younger generations, the Kennedy name may no longer be magic, but Chris Mathews does great work to remind everyone just how special the Kennedy family was at one time. Although JFK gets most of the attention, Hardball anchor Chris Matthews knows that Bobby Kennedy was almost as important, and came very close to being president himself—and may well have been if he hadn’t been cut down in the prime of life just like his brother. Matthews doesn’t sugarcoat the ruthlessness that made plenty of enemies for Bobby Kennedy, but he also captures the younger Kennedy’s keen intellect and growing empathy for people who were not as fortunate as him, traits that would have made him a great president, had he lived.

    The American Spirit: Who We Are & What We Stand For, by David McCullough
    McCullough is one of the most celebrated historians in American history. He has written absorbing accounts of the Wright Brothers, John Adams, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge—winning two Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards along the way. A thinker like that naturally makes a lot of speeches in front of a lot of audiences, and he compiles here some of his best—speeches made before Congress, before academic audiences, before groups of fellow historians. This is stirring stuff, the sort of of clear-eyed, patriotic, smart rhetoric we need more of in these divisive and confusing times. McCullough brings a calm authority to his words, equal parts comforting and energizing. It is an ideal book to read if your faith in our institutions is fading.

    Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxas
    If you ever doubt that one person can alter the course of history, look no further than Martin Luther, a young monk who sought only to spark debate when he posted his 95 Theses to a church door. Instead, Luther’s startling moment of protest launched what came to be known as the Protestant Revolution and remade the Christian faith. Metaxas offers up a fresh perspective on a man so famous he’s more myth than reality these days, finding the humanity underneath the history.

    The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore
    Whenever someone questions the need for laws protecting workers and everyone else from the deprivations of profit-seeking companies, this story should serve as educational. In the early 20th century, more than a dozen women were employed to paint watches with luminous paint based on the radioactive material radium. These women were fine artists who were able to manipulate their brushes expertly, often using their mouths to twist the brushes to a fine point in order to do the detail work. Soon after, many began suffering terrible medical problems, including lost teeth and disease jawbones, sparking a decades-long legal and medical battle that redefined worker’s rights and workplace safety.

    Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy
    Stories of World War II often focus on the heroic deeds of male soldiers, but newly declassified documents reveal a shadow army of women who also did their part—the codebreakers. Recruited from colleges and secretarial pools for their math skills, these women were set to the task of breaking enemy codes, but their efforts and achievements were top secret, and their stories largely unknown—until now. Battling the expected sexism and hostile attitudes of their male counterparts and supervisors, tens of thousands of women helped to end the war much more quickly than it would have otherwise, and Mundy rescues their stories from obscurity and gives them the credit they deserve. In fact, she makes a solid case that without these women, we might not have won World War II at all.

    Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson
    When Hitler and the Nazis overran much of Europe, Great Britain was flooded with refugees from all nations and walks of life—including people who had implored the British to help them, to no avail, as the German army crashed over their borders. Olson chronicles story after story of heroism, betrayal, heartbreak, and triumph, from the Polish codebreakers who helped Bletchley Park decipher the Nazi codes, to the governments in exile that formed. The experiences and contributions of these dislocated people had a direct impact on the outcome of the war, and many of their stories will be inspirational, even seven decades later.

    The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
    Preston, also known as one half of the team writing the Agent Pendergrast series of thrillers, details his involvement with a team seeking to prove the existence of a lost city in the Honduran wilderness. Legends tell of a city destroyed by a series of natural cataclysms, abandoned as cursed, and forbidden for centuries. Using a combination of cutting-edge technology and boots on the ground, Preston and his team locate two large sites and a wealth of archaeological treasures to prove that a lost civilization once existed in an area of the world where no human being has set foot in centuries. Preston’s skill as a novelist makes the deep-dive into the past at once entertaining, gripping, and informative.

    Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge, by Helen Rappaport

    History can sometimes seem a bit like looking at a diorama behind glass, leaving you to wonder what it was like to actually be there. Rappaport solves this problem with this fascinating new look at the Russian Revolution, focusing on foreigners from Western nations who were in Petrograd as the powder keg of revolution exploded. Glimpse the beginnings of a violent uprising that transformed an empire (and the world) from the perspective of the confused, scared people who were on hand to witness it. From barricaded offices to views of riots, Rappaport’s lively writing offers a “you are there” approach to history that is sobering in its immediacy.

    Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by, by Thomas E. Ricks
    Context is everything. Although they lived at the same time, were born in the same country, and fought many of the same enemies, Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met, and there’s no evidence they ever even read each other’s work. Ricks places these two remarkable men side-by-side, however, and finds common ground in their shared philosophies and hatred of tyranny. A study of the lives of two men who never interacted might seem like a strange approach to history, but the result is a deeper look at the larger picture of culture and society that shaped their views, and the impact each had on the world around them.

    The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War, by Doug Stanton
    One of the most effective techniques in a history book is to focus on a single event, exploring every facet in order to illuminate a larger related tapestry. Stanton does just this with his exploration of the Tet Offensive, the chaotic attack North Vietnam launched on January 31st, 1968 in an effort to destabilize the south and push American forces out of the country. The forty men of Echo Company of the 101st Airborne Division (an army reconnaissance platoon) had just arrived in country, and found themselves enduring a grueling, seemingly endless battle against a desperate, implacable enemy. The gripping descriptions of endless fighting combined with testimonials about the less-than warm welcome the soldiers received when they returned home help to explain the Vietnam era in terms anyone will understand.

    Where the Past Begins, by Amy Tan
    Bestselling novelist Tan’s unconventional memoir finds her on a journey through her own past via spontaneous storytelling: using fluid writing to search through her own memories to reveal the inspirations and traumas that have shaped her works. In the process, Tan reveals difficult truths about her childhood, and makes connections and uncovers memories that she herself was shocked by.

    We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, by Gabrielle Union
    Actress Union tells her story with wit and sensitivity, a story that includes her struggles as one of a few black students in a predominantly white high school, the devastating rape at gunpoint that almost broke her, and her recovery and pursuit of a high-octane Hollywood career. Union addresses topics including parenting, raising black kids in a culture often perceived as steeped in racism, and teen sexuality—always with disarming humor and perceptive insights that mark this as much more than a typical Hollywood vanity memoir. Without much of a filter, Union comes across as a nuanced survivor who has managed to keep both her sense of humor and her ability to love despite her experiences.

    The post The Best History Books, Biographies, and Memoirs of 2017 appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 5:00 pm on 2017/11/01 Permalink
    Tags: , history,   

    The Best History Books of November 2017 

    Obama: An Intimate Portrait, by Pete Souza
    You’ll never get a more intimate glimpse of the Obama White House. In more than 300 photos taken by Chief Official White House Photographer Souza, we see our 44th President in moments of relaxed intimacy as well as stressful emergency. Each photo is accompanied by explanatory captions that give just enough background to make them meaningful—and often powerful. You don’t have to be a fan of Obama’s policies or politics to find this deep dive into life in the White House completely absorbing. Obama’s administration was historic simply by its existence, and this beautifully-designed collection of stunning photos offers a powerful record of an era.

    What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, by Dan Rather
    These days, Dan Rather is remembered as a steady and intelligent force in journalism at a time when “steady” and “intelligent” seem like too much to hope for. In this collection of essays, Rather brings gravitas to the subject of patriotism, a term and concept he argues is frequently, often willfully misunderstood, or even twisted into something perverse. Rather takes a quiet approach, exploring the importance of arts, the press, and service to your country in essays that are deeply felt and smartly written. The end result is a book thatwill prompt conversations about what it means to be a patriot in modern-day America.

    Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, by Lawrence O’Donnell
    MSNBC’s O’Donnell makes a persuasive argument that our modern-day political morass of our politics can be traced firmly back to 1968, the year Nixon was elected to his first term. O’Donnell examines all the dominoes, beginning with Eugene McCarthy’s decision to run against Lyndon Johnson, which he argues spurred Johnson to make the unusual decision not to seek a second term, setting in motion a series of events that ended with Nixon triumphant and the liberal wing of the Republican Party extinguished. O’Donnell backs up his writing with in-depth research and detailed sources, making this the sort of history book that illuminates much more than just a single event.

    Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House, by Donna Brazile
    Brazile is a divisive figure, but one thing is certain: when the Democratic National Committee was hacked during the 2016 presidential election and chaos threatened to swallow the party, she was in the room. Brazile now offers an insider’s account of that upheaval, and makes it clear that whatever you think happened, the reality was much worse. She paints a picture of a party in disarray, already boiling with in-fighting and scandal when the Russian-led efforts to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump hit. Brazile argues that covering up the events or pretending things are fine won’t help anyone, and sets out to do her part by offering an intriguing warts-and-all account of what happened as she understands it.

    Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World’s Deadliest Weapons, by Theo Emery
    World War I was a redefining conflict in many ways, not least of which was the demonstration of how scientific advancement and technological innovation could make the horrors of war that much more horrifying. Emery considers an obscure element of the first World War: the scramble the United States undertook to gear up its poison gas capabilities. The U.S. had a very small and ill-equipped military machine when war was declared in 1917, and the combination of patriotic fervor and can-do spirit that produced a humming poison gas infrastructure in a very short time is both haunting and terrifying—and new ground even for seasoned World War I buffs.

    The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear
    If you think the internet and web culture started in the 1990s with Netscape and AOL, you’re missing a whole lot of history. Some of it is widely-known, but some of it remains more or less untold. That’s the case with the teaching platform PLATO, invented in the 1960s and used at the University of Illinois. Via phone lines and a central server, PLATO was more or less a small, self-contained internet of sorts, and had a huge role in the development of hacker culture, as students learned how to use and misuse the system for their own entertainment and education. A fascinating look at a moment in time that seems impossibly ahead of the curve, considering it took place decades before the internet arrived on home computers.

    Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom, by Russell Shorto
    Shorto takes a refreshingly personal approach to familiar history, examining six figures from Revolutionary times (some, like George Washington, quite famous; others, more obscure), weaving their personal stories together. The result is an intimate story that explains the worldview of people for whom the concept of equality and personal freedom was new and somewhat confusing. Shorto treats each of his chosen figures as fully-formed people, even bringing a new intimacy and some surprising revelations to Washington, a historical figure too often treated as nearly inhuman in his nobility and perfection of motive. It’s important to be reminded that the world of 1776 was much different than today, and many of the things we now take as self-evident had to be explained and sold to people of the times.

    All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor, by Donald Stratton with Ken Gire
    The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor occurred 75 years ago, and Donald Stratton was there, serving on the U.S.S. Arizona. This riveting firsthand account of the attack begins long before it, with Stratton’s childhood, offering a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the men who joined the service before the war—and how it changed in the wake of the attack. With corroboration and additional research from Gire, Stratton offers an informative and gripping account of an event that shaped America, and continues to affect our nation’s military, politics, and social structures.

    Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, by Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney
    Just about everyone is familiar with Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned about the rising influence of the “military-industrial complex.” Baier and Whitney explore the final days of Eisenhower’s administration as he prepared to turn power over to the young John F. Kennedy, cognizant that Kennedy had, in part, leveraged the public’s fear of the Soviet Union in order to win the election. The time for a thorough reexamination of Eisenhower’s presidency in these telling final weeks is long overdue; any student of politics seeking insight into 2017’s transfer of power will benefit from reading this book.

    Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink, by Anthony McCarten
    McCarten, whose book is the basis of the new film about Winston Churchill starring Gary Oldman, traces the development of the iconic British Prime Minister over the course of his lengthy career. Before World War II Churchill was in the political wilderness, considered something of a bombastic failure, but the war brought him back in, and he rose to the occasion as have few other figures in history. McCarten offers up the eyebrow-raising theory that Churchill was seriously considering making a peace accord with Hitler before ultimately deciding peace was impossible, and his contrasting analysis of Churchill and Hitler’s rhetorical styles is fascinating.

    The post The Best History Books of November 2017 appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 4:20 pm on 2017/10/18 Permalink
    Tags: , , , history   

    The Ideal Biography for Every Single President 

    Ask most anyone to name all 44 United State presidents, and the odds are good they’ll stall after a dozen or two. Which is totally understandable—between guys who were president for only a few weeks, toa few who were president twice non-consecutively, the numbering gets a little wonky (not to mention there are more than a few Presidents who are, honestly, forgettable).

    Still, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and for some reason that lesson seems more important than ever, so: here are our picks for the perfect biographies of all 44 men who have served as our chief executive.

    George Washington: Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner

    Flexner originally published a four-volume biography of our first president, an imposing set of books that was appropriately epic for the father of our country, but also bordering on unreadably dense. A few years later he condensed those nearly 2,000 pages into this much more streamlined book, adding in maps and illustrations and making the text more readable. The result is a near-perfect balance of research, storytelling, and historical perspective on a man buried under legend and propaganda.

    John Adams: John Adams, by David McCullough

    Despite his crucial role in the revolution, for a long time many regarded Adams simply as the guy who took over when Washington stepped aside—as an extension of the first president’s guiding hand. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, McCullough rectifies that, showing Adams to be a fascinating character and a potent political force. While McCullough has been accused of being partial to Adams and showing him in the best possible light at all times (an accusation that’s certainly true to some extent), this prejudice actually helps the book when combined with McCullough’s natural novelistic style, resulting in a work that has done much to elevate Adams to his rightful place in the hierarchy of leaders.

    Thomas Jefferson: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis

    Jefferson is probably the least knowable of all the presidents. Even his contemporaries didn’t seem to really “get” him, and he was so careful in his public and private communications, his personality remains opaque to modern audiences. Ellis’ genius move here is to write a biography that’s more of a psychological analysis than a life story. The result is a remarkably well-balanced look at Jefferson, shading in both his virtues (no one doubts he was a genius, or that he had firm principles he was prepared to fight for) and his deficits (conversely, no one likewise doubts he held a grudge like no other).

    James Madison: James Madison, by Ralph Ketcham

    Our fourth president is often forgotten by those who have been out of school for a while, but Madison was a key force in the early days of our country. His work guiding the composition and adoption of the constitution can’t be minimized, and when he stepped into the presidency, he’d already served the previous administrations in high-level roles. Ketcham had access to original documents and letters that no one else had been able to work with before, and this long, dense biography is an impressively complete look at a man often given short shrift.

    James Monroe: The Last Founding Father, by Harlow Giles Unger

    Unger achieves something with his look at the life of our fifth president that is rare in any biography: he brings Monroe to vivid life. While some have accused Unger of being less-than objective in his consistent praise of Monroe, he manages to sketch out the man, tracing his humble origins and showing how a man who wasn’t at the intellectual or charismatic caliber of his predecessors could become one of the most important presidents in history. Monroe emerges as a cunning, resolute man who was self-aware when it came to his own flaws, who asserted himself through stubborn insistence. Unger’s writing style is lively and compelling, too, making this an entertaining read to boot.

    John Quincy Adams: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, by Paul C. Nagel

    Most often remembered as a member of the two father-son president duos (the others being George H. W. and George W. Bush), John Quincy Adams is often something of a cipher. Nagel gained access to Adams’ diary, an impressively multi-volume personal account that makes this biography almost an autobiography, because so much of it is pulled directly from Adams’ own thoughts and writing. Not only does this allow Nagel to explore Adams intimately, it also gives a glimpse into what America was like in the early 19th century, when many Americans had been born citizens of the British Empire.

    Andrew Jackson: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

    Jackson is one of the most significant presidents to hold the office, a man who utterly transformed the role of the chief executive and set history in motion. Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is far and away the best book about Jackson’s life ever written. Curiously, it’s not a comprehensive life story; similarly to Unger’s treatment of Monroe, Meacham tries to get into the head of Jackson and paint a portrait of the man, as opposed to a recitation of events and decisions. Unlike Unger, Meacham has to rely on third-party accounts, and the result is a Jackson you understand, yet don’t feel like you truly know.

    Martin Van Buren: Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer

    Van Buren languished for decades as one of the least-regarded presidents, his administration sometimes considered a failure on almost every level. A proponent of small government, he tried to stick to his philosophical guns during one of the first major economic crises of the young nation, and for a long time, that was his legacy. Widmer brilliantly expands Van Buren’s legacy to more than just the relative failure of his administration, pointing out a lifetime of accomplishment and hard work and raising Van Buren’s profile to something closer to what the man deserves.

    William Henry Harrison: Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer, by Robert M. Owens

    At first blush, Owens’ book seems too narrowly focused: it concentrates primarily on Harrison’s time on the American frontier, as a military officer and governor of the Indiana territory. For the story of Harrison, however, this is everything—especially considering he died after just a month in office. During his years on the frontier, he wrestled with the two issues that would come to define the country in the 19th century: slavery and our relations with Native Americans. As the last president to have been born a British subject, Harrison is also a convenient dividing line in American history, and the examination of his experiences as the country rapidly spread over the continent is fascinating.

    John Tyler: John Tyler, by Gary May

    Our first “accidental” president (he ascended when Harrison died in office) had a relatively unremarkable tenure, and this short biography is suitably clean and direct. While the book confirms the general consensus that John Tyler was not an exciting or particularly deep man, it does put his presidency into context, and succeeds in making a fairly dull man at least a little interesting.

    James K. Polk: Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman

    Polk is probably the most important and effective president to receive the least amount of historical attention; few people realize just how influential he was on the country’s political development. Borneman’s 2008 biography, in fact, was the first major work written about Polk in decades. It’s a fantastic book, providing crucial context on how Polk’s predecessors set up the environment he found himself in when he took office in 1845, a moment in history when the United States was on the cusp of becoming a more modern nation more familiar to today’s readers.

    Zachary Taylor: Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest, by K. Jack Bauer

    Despite a lengthy military career and a second chapter that culminated in becoming president, Taylor isn’t a particularly interesting personality; by all accounts he was just a guy, you know? The book Bauer produced is a must-read for anyone interested in presidential history for two reasons, though: first, the depth of research is astounding—Bauer crafts a complete picture of Taylor’s life and the world he inhabited seemingly effortlessly; second, this is one of the few presidential biographies where the author seems completely objective—there is very little worship in Bauer’s pages, in which Taylor seems to become less admirable as you make your way through the book.

    Millard Fillmore: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, by Robert J. Rayback

    The amazing thing about Millard Fillmore is that his early political life, in which he navigated the ruthless channels of New York’s political machine and the Whig Party, is one million times more exciting and memorable than his presidency—which, let’s face it, you’ve already forgotten about (or never learned about in the first place). Fillmore’s administration was so sleepy that very few people have bothered writing about him, and Rayback’s 1959 (!) book remains the best effort—and it’s a great book that finds a fascinating man in a dull president.

    Franklin Pierce: Franklin Pierce, by Michael F. Holt

    This short but effective biography offers great insight into one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history. Pierce is fascinating because he wasn’t stupid, or ineffective. As you read this book you’ll find a smart, charismatic man whose commitment to holding together a political and social center that was rapidly disintegrating led him to make some of the worst decisions possible, decisions that many people blame in part for the disaster of the Civil War. That makes Pierce a crucial president to understand despite his failures, and this is the ideal book to accomplish that.

    James Buchanan: President James Buchanan: A Biography, by Philip Shriver Klein

    In many ways, Buchanan’s presidency was doomed from the start; the question of who could possibly have steered the country away from the Civil War in 1857 has very, very few answers. As a result, Buchanan is usually lumped in on a short list of “worst” presidents and forgotten, which explains why Klein’s 1962 work remains the definitive Buchanan biography. Klein manages to argue that Buchanan wasn’t nearly the failure many regard him as, but rather a man who never had a chance and thus deserving of at least some sympathy and respect.

    Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame

    Some might suggest Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as the best Lincoln book, and we wouldn’t argue—but Team of Rivals isn’t a biography. For that, Burlingame’s huge, dense work is your go-to choice, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Lincoln’s life doesn’t lack for analysis, but Burlingame combines impeccably detailed research with a writing style that makes this a fun read as well as an educational one. Of course, when it comes to Goodwin’s classic, no one says you can’t read two Lincoln books, right?

    Andrew Johnson: Andrew Johnson: A Biography, by Hans L. Trefousse

    By all accounts, Andrew Johnson was an unremarkable and slightly sketchy man; he was selected as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 mainly because he was the only sitting Senator from the Confederacy to remain firmly with the Union, and became President when Lincoln was assassinated. He’s remembered today mainly for being the first sitting president to be impeached, but his backstory is 100 percent American: born into extreme poverty, he made his way through life and rose through the ranks due to a combination of hard work and simple loyalty. He was a terrible president, but Trefousse finds the man inside the history.

    Ulysses S. Grant: Grant, by Ron Chernow

    Chernow is poised to do for Grant what he did for Alexander Hamilton, though it remains to be seen if a hip hop-infused Broadway musical will be made from this new book. What is certain is that Grant is as fascinating a character as Hamilton—a man who went from a personal and professional nadir in 1861 to being in charge of the Union armies by 1864, and President of the United States by 1868—only to preside over one of the most corrupt administrations of all time. If anyone can plumb the central mystery of Grant’s contradictions, it’s Chernow.

    Rutherford B. Hayes: Rutherford B. Hayes, by Hans L. Trefousse

    Few presidents left as little mark on history as Hayes, a man who barely scraped into office through the Compromise of 1877 and whose strong sense of ethics and morality could have been formidable but were instead limiting. Trefousse is once again the go-to historian to get a sense of Hayes as a man and a politician; this briskly-paced biography underscores Hayes’ essential goodness while detailing his failure to translate that rectitude into concrete policies or a lasting legacy. Hayes is one of the most opaque men to serve as chief executive, and Trefousse does better than most in piercing that blank facade.

    James Garfield: Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

    Millard’s classic biography is more like a work of historical fiction than a biography, but that’s what makes it work so well, especially for a president who served six months before being assassinated—and who would have survived the attempt had his doctor’s sterilized their hands and instruments or been monumentally incompetent in general. Garfield barely had time to establish a legacy as president, but Millard manages to capture the man and even hint at what might have been in what is regarded as one of the best presidential biographies ever written.

    Chester Arthur: Chester Alan Arthur, by Zachary Karabell

    Chester Arthur is no one’s favorite president, and yet he managed one notable achievement in his 3+ years in office after taking over for Garfield: the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This was all the more remarkable considering that Arthur was known as a shady machine politician when he took office. Karabell’s excellent if brief biography paints a portrait of a surprisingly multifaceted man; you might think Arthur is a footnote in the list of presidents, but he’s a much more interesting figure than you suspect.

    Grover Cleveland: Grover Cleveland, by Henry F. Graff

    Grover Cleveland was elected president twice, in non-consecutive terms, and actually won the popular vote when Benjamin Harrison was elected in 1888—and yet he’s often overlooked. Even more surprising is the fact that Cleveland was actually an effective president. While he might not be on anyone’s Top 10 list, he has a solid list of achievements and dominated American politics for years. Graff paints a portrait of a man who was, if nothing else, decisive: Cleveland never dithered or hesitated, which was a blessing when he tackled the late-19th century depression that hit the country as he resumed office.

    Benjamin Harrison: Benjamin Harrison, by Charles W. Calhoun

    Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president, is hardly the most exciting man to hold the position. The common wisdom is that he was neither incompetent nor exceptional. Calhoun, however, manages to make his biography of Harrison interesting by arguing that Harrison is actually responsible for setting in motion the evolution of modern presidency—that he was actually the first activist president, and his busy administration was a key moment of evolution from the less powerful and more isolated 19th century-style presidents into the modern conception of the office. That Calhoun is very convincing in this argument makes this a necessary read for any presidential scholar.

    William McKinley: William McKinley and His America, by H. Wayne Morgan

    McKinley is an important president regardless of his achievements simply because his election represented a shift from the post-Civil War political landscape to the Progressive Era. Even so, McKinley’s administration is generally well regarded, and Morgan manages to sketch out the personality of a man whose portraits convey exactly zero of his inner life. Morgan finds a perfect balance between the context of McKinley’s presidency and the life story of a man who was the last president to have served in the Civil War and our second president to be assassinated while in office.

    Theodore Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy, by Edmund Morris

    Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most famous presidents of all time, and everyone is probably familiar with the high points of his story—his frail, sickly youth, his aggressively physical adulthood, his adventures with the Rough Riders, etc. Roosevelt wasn’t just famous for his personality, though; he’s easily one of the most effective and influential presidents to have ever served, and Morris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning three-volume set is the appropriately deep dive into Roosevelt’s life and political career that you need to read in order to understand not just Roosevelt’s incredible influence on America but the life that shaped him as a man and a politician.

    William Howard Taft: William Howard Taft, by Jeffrey Rosen

    The main thing people remember about Taft, our 27th President, is that he was so fat he once got stuck in a tub in the White House—which is a shame since the story is fake news. Taft remains the only person to ever be president and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which makes him one of the most interesting historical figures of all time even if his administration usually gets middling marks, and Rosen’s brisk biography does a great job of humanizing the man while reminding us of his very real achievements.

    Woodrow Wilson: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, by John Milton Cooper

    Theodore Roosevelt returned to run for a third term as president in 1912, running against Woodrow Wilson, and Cooper’s unusual biographical approach is to treat them both as equally important to the question of who was Woodrow Wilson, the president who tried to keep the U.S. out of World War I and then guided the country through it. The war overshadowed Wilson’s progressive legislative achievements, which were substantial—and Cooper makes a sound argument that Wilson’s policies weren’t that different from what a 3rd Roosevelt term might have looked like.

    Warren G. Harding: Warren G. Harding, by John W. Dean

    Harding is a frequent candidate for the worst president of all time, a man whose administration was plagued by scandal and whose policies set the country on a downward spiral. Dean—infamous due to his connection to Watergate—is a Harding apologist, but that’s what makes his biography the best one to read. Most other Harding bios are either clearly critical of our 29th president or weakly defensive; Dean is full-throated in his defense. Where he fails to convince is where Harding truly failed as president, and where Dean makes you think is where Harding has, perhaps, received unfair treatment.

    Calvin Coolidge: Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes

    Shlaes, a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the ideal biographer of Calvin Coolidge, who served as our 30th president during the Roaring Twenties and exited, stage left, pursued by the Great Depression. Shlaes has the economic understanding to offer up a wholehearted defense of a president who generally inspires very little excitement in the modern reader, arguing that Coolidge’s smart economic policies kept the plates spinning much longer than might have otherwise been the case, elevating Coolidge’s reputation several pegs as a result.

    Herbert Hoover: Herbert Hoover, by William E. Leuchtenburg

    Herbert Hoover is a prime example of the fallacy of prior results: he was a talented, intelligent man who would have made a great president had the economy not utterly collapsed from under him, the result of economic principles no one at the time entirely understood. Hoover’s paralyzed response to the incredible crisis of the Great Depression leaves him at the bottom of most lists of presidents—and deservedly so—but Leuchtenburg’s short, dense biography reminds us that Hoover had plenty of achievement in his life, and deserves a better reputation overall that he enjoys.

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt: FDR, by Jean Edward Smith

    One of our greatest presidents deserves one of the greatest biographies ever written, and Smith comes through with her epic, well-written, and impeccably researched 2007 book. Smith offers a panoramic view of FDR, a man born into wealth and affluence who wound up a champion of the middle class and poor, a president whose efforts to guide the country out of the Depression were failures until World War II came along—and yet a man who is still routinely included in the top five presidents of all time.

    Harry Truman: The Accidental President, by A.J. Baime

    Baime’s new biography finally gives Truman the attention he deserves. As the title implies, Truman is still regarded by many as an “accidental” president who was a safe, boring choice for the vice presidency and who was never supposed to be president himself. And yet Truman was a better chief executive than many realize—if for no other reason than the way he navigated the first four months of his first term, stepping into FDR’s oversize shoes and somehow keeping everything on track despite never having been taken into FDR’s confidence when the man was alive.

    Dwight D. Eisenhower: Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith

    Eisenhower is often associated with complacency, with the 1950s post-war haze. Smith argues forcibly—and successfully—that Eisenhower was a dynamic and effective president who oversaw the country’s transition from war to peace, from the past to the present, from hot war to cold war. Smith’s focus on Eisenhower’s military career might seem at first a mistake, but the fact is Ike’s presidency was an extension of his military career despite his clear understanding of the necessary division between the military and the civilian government.

    John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek

    Kennedy has long been more legend than human being, and Dallek works hard to carve away the mythology to get at the person behind the famous images and the politician behind the desk. His focus on Kennedy’s early life and medical issues, plus his ability to dig up new original sources concerning Kennedy’s affairs and indiscretions, is coupled with a sober assessment of Kennedy as president, resulting in a nearly-perfect biography of an imperfect president.

    Lyndon Johnson: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro

    Lyndon Johnson was a masterful politician, a consummate wheeler-dealer, and a ruthless part boss who surprised everyone by pursuing ambitious policies once he found himself in office. He was also a flawed man who allowed the Vietnam War to completely consume his presidency before his work was done. Caro’s incredible book series about John is huge—but as you read you come to realize it could probably be twice as long, so packed with achievement was Johnson’s career both pre- and post-presidency.

    Richard Nixon: Richard Milhouse Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, by Roger Morris

    Few presidents were so clearly driven by psychological factors as Nixon, a man who always felt slighted, persecuted, and disrespected. After a long decade in the political wilderness during the 1960s, Nixon made an improbably comeback to become president in 1968, and somehow combined brilliance with a seething rage and paranoia that drove him to destroy himself—but not before poisoning the political discourse of the country, permanently. Morris’ fantastic biography digs into Nixon, the man, who is essential to understanding Nixon, the president.

    Gerald Ford: Gerald R. Ford, by Douglas Brinkley

    Ford is usually regarded as the most accidental of the accidental presidents—a man who was appointed Vice President when Spiro Agnew resigned who then became president when Nixon resigned, and who then lost his bid for proper election in 1976, having served less than three years in the office. Brinkley doesn’t exactly make a case for Ford, under-appreciated genius, but he does make Ford’s career seem less haphazard in retrospect, noting his close relationship with Nixon that made his status as heir-apparent clear and the vicious political battle Ford fought against the surprise candidacy of Ronald Reagan at the convention in 1976—a battle Ford won.

    Jimmy Carter: Jimmy Carter, by Julian E. Zelizer

    Carter was a political outsider elected in reaction to the lingering stink of Watergate, but his outsider status meant he had a huge learning curve. Zelizer reminds the reader of Carter’s achievements, especially the SALT II Treaty and the Camp David Peace Accords, while noting that in some ways Carter was in a no-win situation as the economy stagnated, dooming him to the appearance of failure no matter what happened.

    Ronald Reagan: Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands

    Reagan remains a divisive figure in the increasingly polarized political climate of the U.S., and past biographers have found him to be an opaque figure—a man so used to being on camera and under scrutiny that his true self was difficult to pinpoint. Brands manages to cut through partisan sniping and understands that Reagan was his contradictions—and his contradictions (a conservative firebrand open to compromise, a president who talked tough but pursued careful policies) were what made him successful.

    George H.W. Bush: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham

    Meacham’s glorious biography of the elder Bush is an inspiring story of a man of wealth and power who sought to serve his country instead of simply enjoying his position in society. Bush was a capable chief executive in the shadow of a colossus named Reagan, a man who lacked personal charisma forced to run against a man who was more or less made entirely of charisma. Meacham’s sober finds in Bush senior a very good man who always did his best, and who did in fact achieve quite a bit while in office.

    Bill Clinton: First in His class, by David Maraniss

    Although this biography was written while Clinton was still serving his first term as president, it remains a must-read. Maraniss manages to get to the heart of Clinton’s success in this book, showing him to be a man less of natural talent and more of untiring, indefatigable ambition—ambition he applied to serving his country. Whatever your opinion of Clinton the man, you can’t deny he was one of the best politicians of the late 20th century, and this book gets down to why that was the case in readable, entertaining prose.

    George W. Bush: Bush, by Jean Edward Smith

    While Smith is not shy about criticizing Bush in this fantastic biography—even ending with an open question regarding Bush Jr.’s status as Worst President Ever (although who knows, that slot may be filled by a new name soon enough)—there is plenty of acknowledgment that Bush sometimes did the right thing, and sometimes showed a canny talent for the job he won twice. The fact that the Bush you meet in this book is very similar to the Bush you saw on TV for eight years is actually to the man’ credit.

    Barack Obama: Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, by David Garrow

    Obama is polarizing—those who hate him really hate him, and those who love him tend to adore him. This means that Obama’s own autobiographies are regarded as either works of genius or self-serving myth-making. Garrow’s biography is energetic and finds the truth in-between—Obama’s own writing, it contends, is certainly shaped by Obama’s political ambitions to present our 44th president in a certain way—but this is far from an anti-Obama screed. It is, in fact, perhaps the first truly objective look at Obama’s life and administration.

    Donald J. Trump: Trump Revealed, by Michael Kranish

    If you want to understand how Donald Trump became president (and whether you regard this as a miracle or a disaster), Kranish offers up perhaps the first serious attempt to understand Trump’s life. That doesn’t mean he’s not critical of Trump—and often. But it does sidestep some of the overheated rhetoric that the never-Trumpers engage in and the lavish praise the god-emperor faction offer up, making it a compelling and informative read.

    The post The Ideal Biography for Every Single President appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2017/10/10 Permalink
    Tags: grant, , history, ron chernow, threw away his shot   

    Why Ron Chernow’s Grant Is a Brilliant Book That Will Never Inspire a Hit Musical 

    The moment it was announced that Ron Chernow had a new book about Ulysses S. Grant coming out (Grant), the first question everyone thought of was whether it would turn into another Hamilton. Chernow’s 2004 biography of one of America’s most brilliant, most misunderstood politicians was a smash bestseller, and moreover, was famously adapted into the instantly legendary Broadway musical by Lin-Manual Miranda. Chernow is a brilliant writer with a talent for making historical figures live and breathe on the page, and Grant is no exception. That said, Grant probably won’t inspire a hip hop-flavored musical, for reasons that have nothing to do with the book, and everything to do with Ulysses S. Grant.

    A Different Kind of Tragedy
    While Hamilton’s pride and ability to lose friends and irritate people gives his story a noble tragedy—particularly the avoidable stupidity of his death—Grant’s tragedy is of wholly different nature, rooted in failure and corruption. Grant was successful for about five years of his life; just prior to the Civil War, he was a washed-up, middle-aged former army officer often mistaken for a homeless person on the street. His application to resume his commission when the war broke out was almost turned down by officers who remembered him being drunk on duty. The Civil War turned out to be Grant’s moment to shine, and his military genius during the conflict—which saw him go from a man the army almost didn’t want, to being commander of all Union armies in just a few years—can’t be denied. But after the war, Grant promptly resumed failing upward.

    Un-Sexy Scandals
    Hamilton was plagued by rumors and bad behavior; his extramarital affairs caused chaos in his life, and his ability to insult people made his political life more difficult than it had to be. But having affairs and getting into duels is kind of sexy, and lends itself to a juicy musical. Grant’s scandals were far less flashybeginning with his shiftless boozing as a younger man. As president, his appointment of a cabinet filled with political hacks and old friends with little experience put him firmly on the road to being one of our least-regarded presidents—but it isn’t exactly the stuff of a moving ballad. Worse, despite leading what is commonly regarded as one of the most corrupt administrations in history, Grant was largely unaware of the sketchy deals being made in his own offices—hardly the stuff of smart lyrics and sick beats.

    Subterranean Grace
    To be sure, Chernow works pretty hard to reclaim some glory for Grant, redefining his presidency upwards. Chernow argues that Grant was actually correct in most of his decisions regarding Reconstruction, and that if he’d been able to push his vision forward, the country would be much different—and likely better off—today. And Grant was certainly a true believer in equality, pushing for laws that would secure the newly-freed black slaves a place in society. The problem is, no one has ever argued Grant was a bad man, only that he was a bad president. His intentions may have been noble, but he lacked the ability to make them reality. Grant’s virtues remained largely buried in his private thoughts; his actions off the battlefield were inadequate, and his speeches, kind of dull. Chernow succeeds in inspiring a second look at Grant’s legacy, but there’s little Broadway-esque drama in the story.

    A Lack of Visuals
    Grant was far from the dashing figure of Alexander Hamilton, boy genius. Where Hamilton got to wear the fancy uniforms of the late 18th century, Grant was known to be a shabby dresser. Where Hamilton had rousing nights of song and revolution in the pubs and taverns of New York, Grant was a solitary drinker, an unhappy sort of alcoholic who would go on lengthy benders, then sober up for protracted periods. He managed to make getting drunk seem like a lot of hard, unsavory work. Unless your idea of a great theatrical visual is a heavyset man in an ill-fitting suit drinking as he stares forlornly at the audience, Grant isn’t the stuff of great theater.

    It is, however, the stuff of great history. Chernow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Washington, once again reintroduces a figure everyone thought they knew, and manages to make it seem like we’re meeting Ulysses S. Grant for the first time. The Grant that emerges in these pages is more complex and sympathetic than the 18th President we learned about in school, and Chernow writes with an ease and energy that makes reading his prose a joy. Grant is a great book. Grant himself was a great general. But his story would make for a pretty bad night at the theater.

    The post Why Ron Chernow’s Grant Is a Brilliant Book That Will Never Inspire a Hit Musical appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
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