Serious readers tend to read by season. A worthy book is ripe for the reading in any season, but winter seems to privilege the weightier volumes over those that seem to be more easily set aside for reading in a more opportune season. Summer is that season. Why? Vacation and a change in pace have something to do with the tenor of the season, but the traditional break in the academic calendar may mean even more. We all need a season for reading books that are not assigned.
These 10 books are by no means assigned. These are books that I found sufficiently interesting and compelling to merit my recommendation. Frustratingly, this list could easily be many times as long. I hope to recommend other good books along the way through the season, including some recent works in biography and fiction. My recommendations for summer reading are, as usual, drawn more from the stacks of nonfiction and history. That is my own idiosyncrasy. Given an unfettered opportunity to read an “unassigned” book, I most often turn to history. What am I looking for? I look eagerly for books that make me rethink something I think I know, learn about something I do not know, or surprise me by revealing just how much there is yet to know about an era, an issue, an event — a happening.
So, no assignments here — only recommendations.
1. Richard Rubin, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2013).
Not a single American veteran of World War I remains alive. But, a decade ago, this was not yet true. Richard Rubin had the brilliant idea to try to track down some of the last of the Doughboys, as the American troops in World War I were affectionately known. By the time Rubin was able to interview them, these veterans were, on average, 107 years old. The Last of the Doughboys is a true gift, drawn from Rubin’s conversations with some of the most interesting people you will ever meet on the printed page. And, with the last of these veterans now dead, this is the only place you will find their stories.
The first World War is receding in our national memory. And yet, the national consequences of this war were monumental and lasting. This war, more than any other, marks the divide between the modern world and the world it left behind. When the war started, most of the peoples of the earth were ruled by hereditary monarchs in the Age of Empire. When the war ended, the world was utterly changed. The veterans through whose lives Rubin tells the story of the war lives through this vast transformation, and even into the 21st century. The first man Rubin interviewed, Anthony Pierro, had been born in Forenza, Italy in February of 1896. As Rubin notes, in 1896 Grover Cleveland was President of the United States and the tallest building in the world was 18 stories tall. The Last of the Doughboysis a wonderful combination of biography and history. The story of the American involvement in World War I is told by those who had lived it, and who lived to tell the tale.
“Before the New age and the New Frontier and the New Deal, before Roy Rogers and John Wayne and Tom Mix, before Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, before the TVA and the TV and radio and Radio Flyer, before The Grapes of Wrath and Gone with the Wind and The Jazz Singer, before the CIA and the FBI and the WPA, before airlines and airmail and air conditioning, before JBJ and JFK and FDR, before the Space Shuttle and Sputnik and the Hindenburg and the Spirit of St. Louis, before the Greed Decade and the Me Decade and the Summer of Love and the Great Depression, … before Tupperware and the refrigerator and the automatic transmission and the aerosol can and the Band-Aid and nylon and the ballpoint pen and sliced bread, before the Iraq War and the Gulf War and the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the Korean War and the Second World War, there was the First World War, World War I, the great War, the War to End All Wars.”
2. Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution (Viking, 2013).
Americans tend to think in rather romantic terms of the revolution that gave birth to the nation. As Nathaniel Philbrick makes clear, there were no historical inevitabilities in play as the American colonists and the British Empire approached open war. Philbrick, a seasoned writer who knows how to tell a story, brings the Boston of 1775 to life in this book. He reveals a city at the center of some of the most momentous events of the modern world, but he gives careful attention to the cast of unforgettable characters that made Boston ripe for revolution. School children, at least those fortunate enough to be taught American history, often think of the Revolutionary War beginning at Lexington and Concord. But, as Philbrick shows, it was the full-scale Battle of Bunker Hill that made the revolution a war. Philbrick gives good attention to the debates and controversies that animated, infuriated, and eventually transformed loyal subjects of King George III into revolutionaries. The book begins with a 7-year-old John Quincy Adams standing next to his mother as he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance. You will not want to put the book down until you understand what that little boy saw on that day, and what it meant for the birth of the nation.
“The Revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement. The patriots had not wanted to create something new; they had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire. Enlightenment rhetoric from England had provided them with new ideological grist, but what they had really been about, particularly when it came to the yeoman farmers of the country towns, was defending the way of life their forefathers had secured after more than a century of struggle with the French and the Indians. But something has shifted with the arrival of the new general from Virginia. As Washington made clear in his orders of November 5, 1775, his army was already moving in directions that would have been unthinkable to the New Englanders of old.”
3. Lee Sandlin, Storm Kings: The Untold Story of America’s First Tornado Chasers (Pantheon, 2013).
We now take the technological revolution in meteorology for granted. We expect to receive a timely warning from qualified authorities when severe weather approaches. We are thoroughly accustomed to watching hurricanes form far away in the eastern Atlantic and then gain in strength as they head towards North America. We assume that such knowledge has always been with us. But, as Lee Sandlin makes abundantly clear, when it comes to tornadoes, the inhabitants of North America have more often been victimized than previously understood. Storm Kings traces the story of America’s experience with tornadoes, starting with colonial times when such whirlwind storms caught the attention of no less than Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather. Sandlin then tells the remarkable tale of how Ben Franklin became the world’s leading expert in electricity (for which he saw no predictable use) and how this eventually led him to try to understand the nature of storms, including thunder and lightning and the vast devastation that came from the events known to early settlers as the “Storm King.” In telling the story, Sandlin traces the history of the American experience with tornadoes, painting in vivid detail the vast destruction, sheer terror, and unpredictability of these storms. He explains why North America, and the Great Plains and central portion of the United States in particular, experiences the vast majority of tornadoes known to humankind. Though tornadoes of some sort have appeared in other places of the world, only in the United States do they regularly appear in such strength, number, and intensity. In any given year, the United States will be visited by some 1,000 tornadoes. Most of these do little damage and are soon forgotten. A few, however, cause vast destruction and hundreds of deaths.
In Storm Kings, Sandlin traces the modern effort to predict tornadoes. As he explains, many, including weather authorities in Federal Government, doubted that these storms were predictable in any sense. Furthermore, when the military started developing an actual ability to predict the storms, the information was considered classified and withheld from the public. At one point, the weather service threatened to arrest a civilian meteorologist who tried to warn his community of an oncoming storm. In many ways the hero of Sandlin’s story is Robert C. Miller, an air force meteorologist who happened to be stationed at Tinker Air Force Base outside of Oklahoma City in March of 1948. On March 20, a significant tornado hit Tinker Air Force Base, destroying millions of dollars of military material and planes. The next day, Miller along with a colleague, attempted to draw criteria that seemed to be associated with the onset of a tornado. As the day progressed, the list of criteria grew more precise. At some point during the day, Miller noted with concern that the very set of criteria he had drawn together matched the developing weather in Oklahoma. Later, Miller’s hunch led to the issuance of the very first tornado warning in American history. He was demonstrated to be a prophet when a tornado hit Tinker Air Force Base, just as he had predicted. As Sandlin makes clear, today’s storm chasers are the heirs of many who came before them, trying to understand these dangerous storms from the sky.
“In fact, as Fujita’s followers and successors began to think of it, there was something fundamentally misleading about conceiving of tornadoes as distinct phenomena. They are only as aspect of the fantastically complex and violent evolving dynamics of a supercell thunderstorm. They are rarely singular. They form in clusters and waves; they breed and die off within the larger movement of a storm front like bubbles in the froth. The number of tornadoes that form of half form, the blur and merge and separate within any given storm cell, defies any exact count. The sheer chaos of a severe storm renders precision impossible.”
4. Bob Thompson, Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier (Crown Trade Group).
My knowledge of Davy Crockett came, first of all, from Walt Disney. The song written for Disney’s brief television series on Crockett still reverberates in my head. As Bob Thompson explains, this is true for most living Americans, for whom Davy Crockett is a frontier superhero of sorts. That “Disneyfied” Davy Crockett bears little resemblance to the Congressman David Crockett, member of the U.S, House of Representatives, who was a major political irritant to President Andrew Jackson. Davy Crockett preferred to be called David, and, though the frontier heroism of Crockett is an established fact of history, this was not what his contemporaries imagined would be his legacy. Thompson combines history, biography, and a travelogue in one volume in Born on a Mountaintop. He retraces Crockett’s life as he retraces his travels, all the way to Crockett’s martyrdom at the Alamo — a fate he did not anticipate as he made his way to Texas.. He sets the record straight (where there is sufficient record) and separates myth from reality. In the end, readers will be even more fascinated with the real David Crockett than with his mythological image.
“History drives a hard and devious bargain. If you aren’t the famous one in the center of the picture, your life will likely be forgotten, no matter how interesting it is. And if you are the famous one, as Crockett was in just about everyone’s picture of the Alamo, you will never be seen clearly again.”
5. Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. Volume Three of The Liberation Trilogy (Henry Holt).
The Allied invasion of Europe that represents the closing chapter of the war against Nazi Germany is one of the great military accounts of all time, and the closing months of the war in Europe represent one of the most dramatic periods of history in any recent century. Historian Rick Atkinson tells this story just about as thoroughly as it should be told, and no one with an interest in World War II should be without this volume. On the other hand, no one who really cares about World War II is likely to lack the first two volumes of Atkinson’s work, The Liberation Trilogy. The Guns at Last Light brings the war to a climactic, but exhausted, close. Readers will find Atkinson on rather sure ground in terms of the military and historical consensus, but he does not hold back from making his own judgments. He fuses biography and chronology in this work, offering memorable insights and historical insights along the way. This summer marks the 69th anniversary of D-Day. Read this book in preparation for the 70th anniversary next year.
“Churchill gave a brief valedictory, grasping his coat lapels in both hands. ‘Let us not expect all to go according to plan. Flexibility of mind will be one of the decisive factors,’ he said. ‘Risks must be taken.’ He bade them all Godspeed. “I am hardening on this enterprise. I repeat, I am now hardening toward this enterprise.’ Never would they be more unified, never more resolved. They came to their feet, shoulders squared, tramping down the hall to the limousines waiting on Hammersmith Road to carry them to command posts all across England. Ahead lay the most prodigious undertaking in the history of warfare.”
6. Terry Mort, The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars (Pegasus Books).
The quarter century of warfare between the Chiricahuas and the United States is one of the saddest and most unnecessary chapters of American history. The war would be deadly on all sides, with many noncombatants among the victims, including women and children on all sides. In The Wrath of Cochise, Terry Mort reminds readers that, until the incompetence of a U.S. Army officer, Lt. George Bascom. entered the picture, the main conflict had been between the Chiricahuas and the Mexicans. All that changed when Bascom accused Cochise, a famous Apache warrior, of kidnapping a 12-year-old boy. Mort helps the reader to understand the clash of civilizations that occurred in the Southwest and the deadly effect of each side misunderstanding the other. Furthermore, he offers the honest moral assessment that there were no innocent parties in this bloody conflict. Cochise emerges as a deadly warrior who, regrettably, showed himself to be just as ruthless and murderous as expected at times, and, at other times, utterly unpredictable. With Cochise’s death, an entire Native American civilization came to an end.
“In the case of the Chiricahuas, the sharp distinction between themselves and everyone else seems to have strengthened both sets of coexistent instincts and values — the savage warrior when out on a raid or on the warpath, the cooperative member of an affectionate extended family when at home. The Chiricuhuas were living a double life, but their adversaries saw only one side. For most of them, that was more than enough. But humans are more than capable of holding multiple, conflicting sets of emotions and values, walling one set off from the other…. Clearly, this ability to maintain two radically different sets of values simultaneously has been the source of more than a little human misery — and misunderstanding.”
7. Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf).
The Civil War, historian Allen Guelzo reminds us, was a war. Yes, it was a great turning point in American history and a transformative event that reshaped the nation. But, it was a war, after all, and wars are determined by battles. The battle of Gettysburg is not only the most famous of those battles, but perhaps the most determinative. In this magisterial new account of Gettysburg, Guelzo brings his vast knowledge of the Civil War to the story of this singular battle. The background to this crucial battle was both military and political. Had Robert E. Lee succeeded, an invasion of the North would have been difficult to stop and demands for a political settlement of the war would have gained massive momentum. Lincoln knew that his political prospects and his conviction that the Union must be preserved were on the line.
In telling the story of Gettysburg, Guelzo considers the raft of controversies that remain even today. More importantly, he puts Gettysburg within the context of the larger war — a story he told so well in Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Readers will find Gettysburg: The Last Invasion to be a definitive account of the battle and its legacy. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College, is uniquely qualified to write this ambitious and worthy volume. Guelzo ends the book with an elegant and moving chapter on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
“And then came Gettysburg. It was not merely that Gettysburg finally delivered a victory, or that it administered a bloody reverse to Southern fortunes at the point and in the place where they might otherwise have scored their greatest triumph, or that it had come at such a stupendous cost in lives. It was that the monumental scale of the bloodletting was its own refutation to the old lie, that a democracy enervates the virtue of its people to then point where they are unwilling to do more than blinkingly look to their own personal self-interest.”
8. Dean King, The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys, The True Story (Little, Brown).
Last summer, I recommended Blood Feud by Lisa Alther, a very interesting account of the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Now, just a year later, I am recommending a second book on the same historical event. Why? Because the real story of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys deserves a second account — this one even more detailed and expansive than the last. Like Davy Crockett, the Hatfield-McCoy feud exists as a cartoon of sorts in the American mind. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. The feud was a representation of the feudal culture that existed on the border between Scotland and England, now transferred to the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. As Dean King notes, the bloody conflict has spawned a feud of arguments ever since.
King is an experienced writer. His previous works, Skeletons on the Zahara and Unbound were adventure tales, and The Feud is told in a similar style, but with a depth of research and detail that sets it apart from previous accounts of the feud. King’s research for the book involved extensive interviews with surviving members of both families. He traces the context of the Civil War, deep Appalachian poverty, and an honor culture that sounds more like something out of Afghanistan today. The Feud is filled with an unforgettable cast of historical characters, even as the story of their lives unfolds in such great tragedy.
“The men who lived in these mountains had learned to fight from the Indians and had honed their craft of wilderness warfare — defending, tracking, ambushing, killing — and used it against them, until they had secured the place for themselves. They had a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality. They wrestled and fought for fun. Now they turned their sights on each other, and they excelled at the bloodletting.”
9. Adam Makos, A Higher Call (Berkley Calibre).
This is such a good story that I checked it out to make sure it is true — and it is. Adam Makos tells the story of what happened in the skies over Nazi-dominated Europe five days before Christmas in 1943. An American B-17 bomber was almost blown out of the sky, its young pilots barely able to keep it flying and half of its crew dead or dying. It was the crew’s first flying mission over Europe, and it looked to be their final mission in life. Then, into their view comes a German Messerschmitt fighter, flown by a certified ace. Two second lieutenants faced each other that fateful day. Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown was captain of the B-17 and Second Lieutenant Franz Stigler was the pilot of the Messerschmitt. The story that unfolded that day over Europe is one of the most moving and unlikely of any day in that global cataclysm.
Makos tells the stories of the two pilots, giving readers an understanding of how those two pilots ended up sharing the same frozen airspace on that memorable day. Readers wills sense the terror of airborne conflict and gain insights into the unique morality of modern warfare in the skies and the shared moral code of pilots. More than anything else, readers will be captivated by the account of what took place in then sky on that harrowing day, and then what took place when the two pilots were reunited on the ground long after the war. Makos is editor of the military magazine Valor. A Higher Call is a story of valor. You won’t regret reading it.
“From his perch on the bomber’s wing, Franz saw the two pilots staring at him. He saw shock and fear in their eyes. They knew they were hopeless. With his left hand, Frank pointed down to the ground, motioning for the pilots to land in Germany. He knew it was preferable to be a P.O.W. than to have one’s life snuffed out in a flak burst. But the American pilots shook their heads. Franz cursed in frustration. He knew he could be shot for letting the bomber go. That alone was treason. But Franz also knew that leaving the bomber now would be no different than shooting it down.”
10. Robert M. Utley, Geronimo (Yale University Press).
Authoritative books on famous individuals are often, oddly enough, hard to find. Until now, there was no truly authoritative biography of the most famous Native American Indian of American history and our national imagination — Geronimo. Robert M. Utley was for many years the chief historian of the National Park Service. Geronimo is a life project, and Utley reveals the true Geronimo, a fierce warrior whose personal reputation has often eclipsed his real identity. As Utley explains, Geronimo was not even a chief. He was, on the other hand, a fierce warrior with the ability to command others to follow him. He did not even come to the attention of Americans until he was 53 years of age. But when he did, he did in a big way. He never commanded more than about thirty warriors, but he threw an entire territory into havoc and terror. As Utley notes, Geronimo “accumulated a record of brutality that matched that of any of his comrades.”
Readers will find a wealth of information in this book, including lengthy accounts of how the Apache raised boys and taught them to be ruthless fighters. Utley explains the logic of using raids and terror as instruments of war, and how warriors like Geronimo extended their leadership by the development of a charismatic persona — even the impression of supernatural power. But, more than anything else, Geronimo is a biography, and the man who emerges from this account is one of tragedy, brutality, resignation, and mystery. In Utley’s words, “complex and contradictory.” Geronimo is a compelling and thought-provoking tale.
“On September 4, 1886, at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona Territory, four centuries of Indian warfare in American came to a close. The Ghost Dance troubles four years later were a religious movement, not a war. The character of the Apache conflict differed profoundly from all other Indian wars. Other tribes often engaged in combat, which was rare in Apache hostilities. Few Apache conflicts merit the term ‘battle’ or even ‘skirmish.’ In most encounters the Apaches fled without loss of life. Even so, Skeleton Canyon achieves significance as the end of four centuries of Indian hostilities in North America. As the last holdout, Geronimo acquired the most recent position in the American memory, one reason his legacy has so firmly endured. Legend or reality, Geronimo remains the dominant Indian name in the American memory.”
Publication date: June 7, 2013