Different seasons seem to bring different ambitions and opportunities for reading. Just as summer represents a season for rest and a needed change of pace, it also brings a sense of permission to spend time reading a stack of books you could not spare time to read for months. Add to that stack yet another — books strategically released just in time to be added to the backpack or book bag. This summer publishing season was really strong, with a significant number of books worthy of reading.
My summer reading stack has multiplied into stacks, but in this list I share ten that I have found particularly interesting, timely, and worth the investment of summer hours. As usual for this annual list, the books are non-fiction and tilted toward history. I read a lot of fiction, but I find novels more difficult to recommend in any concise form. I also admit that my most relaxing reading comes in the form of an historical work that helps make sense of the world.
With that admission now made, I share my list for summer reading in 2016. If you have your own list, please pass it along
Saul David, Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Rescue Mission in History (Little Brown).
Those who can remember 1976 must surely remember the daring rescue raid undertaken by the Israelis after a terrorist cell hijacked Air France flight 139, filled largely with passengers from Israel. The hijacked plane was eventually forced to land at the airport in Entebbe in Uganda, and right into the hands of the infamous dictator Idi Amin and his forces. Against all odds, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a rescue mission that would shock the world and save most of the hostages. Israel’s political leadership — most importantly Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak — committed the government to the rescue of the hostages. Keep in mind that just four years earlier the Arab terrorist organization known as Black September had carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 summer Olympic games in Munich. The unprecedented success of the operation lead to the establishment of Delta Force by the U. S. Army. Saul David tells the story from start to finish, using newly declassified records to offer a gripping account of Operation Thunderbolt. The rescue took place 40 years ago, but the story reminds us that today’s headlines also have a history — and a history we dare not ignore.
“Peres continued: ‘We have never agreed in the past to free prisoners who have murdered innocent civilians. If we give in to the hijackers’ demands and release terrorists, everyone will understand us but no one will respect us. If, on the other hand, we conduct a military operation to free the hostages, it is possible that no one will understand us, but everyone will respect us, depending, of course,’ his voice dropped to a whisper, ‘on the outcome of the operation.'”
2. William Geroux, The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-Boats (Viking).
Geroux begins his story with the capture of a very large shark off the coast of Cuba in 1942. When the big predator was cut open it was found to contain human remains and two rings, one of which carried the initials G.D.H. — later identified as George Dewey Hodges, captain of the Onondaga, a cargo ship carrying vital materiel for the Allied war effort. The Onandaga had been sunk by a Nazi U-Boat, and George Dewey Hodges had become one of the many merchant mariners to die as brave casualties of World War II. Indeed, merchant mariners experienced a higher death rate than any other branch of the American war effort, and the war could not have been won without them. Geroux takes us to Mathews County, Virginia and to the mariners who were born and raised there, especially to one couple and their fourteen children, including six sons who went to sea. One of those sons was George Dewey Hodges. This is story that needs to be told and a debt that must be honored. Geroux has told the story well, revealing that what Ernest Hemingway turned into fiction in Islands in the Stream wasn’t half as compelling as the real story. The battle between American mariners and Hitler’s U-boats so close to American shores is a haunting reminder of how close the story of The Mathews Men is to all Americans.
“The visit to Gales Neck took Brother Hodges, now in hist late eighties, back. He had lost two uncles to U-boats , but he had joined the Merchant Marine in 1944 as soon as he turned seventeen. He had gone to sea not out of duty or a desire for revenge, but because the Merchant Marine offered opportunities for a young man comfortable on the water — the same reason Mathews men had always gone to sea. He said the U-boats took a toll on his family but never cowed or deterred them. ‘The Hodges kept going to sea like they always had. Men all over Mathews County kept going to sea like they always had. They didn’t do anything different during the war. The torpedoes just got the in the way.'”
3. Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin, Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford (Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster).
Clint Hill is legendary among U. S. Secret Service agents. It was Hill who is seen in those unforgettable photographs, jumping onto the back of the Lincoln limousine as it sped away from Dealey Plaza with the mortally wounded President John F. Kennedy. Indeed, Hill was present at the side of five American presidents during crucial decades of the twentieth century. Hill tells the story of the American presidency during those years through the eyes of an agent close –and often closest — to the President. Readers also learn about the development of the Secret Service through these pivotal decades, but the bigger story is the presidency itself, and the five presidents Hill served. Five Presidents mixes history, observation, memoir, and subjective evaluation, and the reader will find decades of American history taking bold shape page by page, and sometimes tragedy by tragedy.
“On October 14, 1960, President Eisenhower officially became the oldest U.S. president when he turned seventy. It called for a grand celebration, and someone decided it would be a good idea to invite the general public to a party on the white House lawn. The gates were thrown open, and six thousand people flooded onto the South Grounds…. It was a short event, and agents were spaced around the crowd, but in 1960 there were no magnetometers, no snipers on the roof, no attack dogs. Looking back now, I shudder at the thought. But those were different times. We were living in an age of innocence.”
4. Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking).
Nathaniel Philbrick is one of the best writers of history in this generation. In Valiant Ambition, Philbrick considers the complex relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. If Washington is the nation’s famed “indispensable man,” Benedict Arnold is America’s icon of villainy — the paradigmatic traitor. Valiant Ambition tells the story of that crucial period in the American Revolution when Washington did not yet have total control of his forces — much less the tides of history. He traces the relationship, deeply personal and often puzzling, between Washington and Arnold, and Philbrick makes clear that the Revolutionary War was anything but an inevitable American victory. This, too, is a story that needed telling, and the legacies of both George Washington and Benedict Arnold are filled with lessons as well as interest.
“He was descended from the Rhode Island equivalent of royalty. The first Benedict Arnold had been one of the colony’s founders, and several subsequent generations had helped to establish the Arnolds as solid and respectable citizens. Unfortunately, Arnold’s father, who had resettled in Norwich, Connecticut, proved to be a drunkard , and only after his son had moved to New Haven was the boy able to begin to free himself from the ignominy of his childhood. By his midthirties he had enjoyed enough success to begin building one of the finest homes in town. That didn’t prevent him from being hypersensitive to any slight, and like many honor-obsessed gentlemen in the eighteenth century he had challenged more than one man to a duel.”
5. Paul Andrew Hutton, The Apache Wars (Crown).
The subtitle of The Apache Wars is a summary of this gripping narrative: “The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History.” Most Americans are likely unaware of Mickey Free, kidnapped by an Apache band at age twelve — a boy who later became a man without whom the American story cannot be told. As Hutton explains, “In time the boy would come to play a pivotal part in the war, moving back between the harshly conflicted worlds of the Apache and the white invader, never really accepted by either but invaluable to both.” The Apache Wars became the longest war effort in American history. Hutton, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, recounts the tales of Geronimo and so many others in a definitive account that is not likely to be surpassed or equaled.
“The Apaches, much like the Vikings, lived by raiding. They made a clear distinction between raiding, an economic necessity, and warfare, which was almost always an act of revenge. Raids were conducted by small parties usually numbering under a dozen warriors; the purpose was not to kill but to acquire plunder or prisoners to adopt or enslave. Raids were carefully planned by warriors; the fighters scattered if pursued, and plunder was quickly discarded or destroyed if the pursuers came too close. After all, there was always more to be taken later… War was for revenge and revenge only. It was a warrior’s duty; mercy was not viewed as a virtue.”
6. Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (Viking).
Kershaw is perhaps best known for his magisterial two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler. In To Hell and Back, he paints on a much larger canvas, offering a history of Europe in the dark years that included two massive world wars and the beginnings of the Cold War. But ultimately the book an account of how Europe — or, at least western Europe — emerged again from the cataclysms of the two bloodiest wars the world has seen and the terrors of inhumanity on an unprecedented scale. Americans are often keen to read historical works on World War II, but lack an appreciation for the larger context of the twentieth century as the century of “megadeath” in much of Europe. To Hell and Back is not a light read, but it is not a hard read, and it is the best one-volume history of Europe in these critical decades. Kershaw’s explanation of the two world wars is sufficient reason to read this book, but it offers much more.
“The second war within a generation was the unfinished business of the first. Beyond the millions mourning loved ones, the earlier war had left a continent in convulsion. Immense nationalist, ethnic, and class hatred, interwoven with each other, had created a climate of extreme political violence and polarized politics out of which Hitler’s regime had emerged to endanger Europe’s peace. For Germany more than any other country, the first war had left unfinished business. But a grab for continental, eventually world dominance, through another war was an enormous gamble. The odds, given Germany’s resources, were stacked heavily against the gamble succeeding. other countries, rearming fast, would do all they could to prevent German hegemony, and with greater resources at their disposal once these were mobilized. Germany’s opportunity to achieve victory before its enemies could stop it would be brief.”
7. Simon Read, Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent (De Capo Press).
Winston Churchill is most often remembered by Americans as the lion of England, the Prime Minister who lead his nation to victory against the Nazi regime — the bulldog face of British resolution and the prophet of moral clarity and courage in the face of denial and defeat. He was all that, of course, but Churchill’s life would have been monumental in scale and nearly unimaginable in scope if he had died as a young man. In Winston Churchill Reporting, Simon Read offers what he describes as neither history or biography, but a mixture of both. It is a very good mixture. Read, himself a former newspaper reporter, follows the young Churchill as a foreign correspondent at the height of the British Empire, covering wars in Cuba, India, the Sudan, and South Africa. Of course, Churchill fought in some of those same wars, combining his roles as reporter and soldier in a manner that would never be allowed now. Churchill emerged as a hero and as the best-paid reporter of his times. Read told his friends while writing Winston Churchill reporting that he was writing “Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones.” The book does just that, and for good reason — Winston Churchill was indeed Indiana Jones, and so much more.
“The Battle of La Reforma–as it would become known–was hardly a resounding Spanish victory, for they allowed the rebels to get away. ‘It seems a strange and unaccountable thing that a force, after making such vigorous marches, showing such energy in finding the enemy, and displaying such steadiness in attacking them, should deliberately sacrifice all that these efforts had gained,’ Churchill reported. Here was a glimpse of the aggressive nature that would define Churchill as a war leader, always pushing his generals to be on the offensive and show the enemy no quarter.”
8. Walter R. Borneman, MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific (Little, Brown).
The image of Douglas MacArthur was largely the creation of MacArthur himself, who understood himself to be at the center of the world. His father, a Civil War hero and top-ranking Army general, set for young Douglas MacArthur an example of service and military leadership that would be daunting to any son, but Douglas MacArthur would eventually become Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II and would wear five stars on his shoulder. He was indeed a military genius, but he was also vainglorious and egotistical — a combination that demanded careful handling. Borneman’s achievement is to tell the story of World War II in the Pacific through the story of MacArthur, and to make clear that MacArthur’s success cannot be explained without the leadership of his commander, General George C. Marshall. Marshall was perhaps the one man who understood that MacArthur was essential to victory in the Pacific, but also understood that the great general could also be his own most dangerous enemy. Borneman describes Douglas MacArthur as “the most intriguing military leader of the twentieth century.” Both MacArthur and the war in the Pacific come to life in this timely book.
“In predawn darkness the black telephone rang loudly. The general’s wife lifted the receiver from its cradle on the nightstand in the Manila Hotel penthouse suite’s master bedroom and hesitantly answered it. Telephone calls in the middle of the night were rarely a good thing. The caller identified himself and said he must speak to the general. She passed the receiver to her husband. ‘Yes?’ he answered as if on duty, which indeed always he was. His face grew increasingly taut and his jaw set as he heard his chief of staff’s report. Only then did he show surprise. ‘Pearl Harbor?’ Douglas MacArthur asked incredulously. ‘It should be our strongest position.'”
9. Mark Lee Gardner, Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill (Morrow).
Theodore Roosevelt may be one of the most honored of American presidents and the charge up San Juan Hill may be one of the most famous events in the nation’s military history, but most Americans would likely be hard pressed to explain what exactly happened at San Juan Hill or why it matters. That is a great shame and should be an embarrassment, but the antidote to the loss of national memory is now found in Mark Lee Gardner’s Rough Riders. Gardner’s previous book on the story of Billy the Kid, To Hell on a Fast Horse, appeared on my 2010 summer reading list. Rough Riders deserves its place on this year’s list. Roosevelt constantly yearned to do something “worth doing,” and the story of the Rough Riders and the Spanish American War is essential to understanding the man that Theodore Roosevelt would become and the nation he would later lead.
“Theodore Roosevelt joins James Robb Church as one of the only two members of the Rough Riders to receive the Medal of Honor, and he is the only United States president to receive the decoration. Although Roosevelt was not awarded the cherished medal while he was alive, he acquired a variety of honors during this full life, from the Nobel Peace Prize (for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905) to the naming of a massive dam for him on Arizona’s Salt River. The honor he cherished most, though, was that of commanding the Rough Riders. ‘I regard the fact that I was one of them,’ he once wrote, ‘as well-nigh the most precious heritage I can leave my children.'”
10. T. J. Stiles, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Alfred A. Knopf).
The life of George Armstrong Custer has long deserved the quality of attention that T. J. Stiles finally brings in Custer’s Trials. Custer was, by any estimation, one of the most colorful and controversial figures in American military history. But this book is important because Stiles places the life of Custer, with all of his triumphs and tragedies, in the context of the American story. As Custer rose to prominence (and both fame and infamy), the young United States was finding its way toward a modern identity, with the frontier in the West as a defining reality. Stiles notes that Custer’s death is all that many Americans know of him — “The story begins with its ending.” Stiles also deals honestly and carefully with the great moral questions at the heart of Custer’s life, and at the heart of the nation as well.
“For generations of writers about Custer, death defined his life. Since none of the soldiers who accompanied him on his final ride lived to tell about it, his annihilation has been a great mystery. The mechanics of his last battle have been analyzed and supposed in extreme detail in order to solve it. Every accident in his life, every personality trait has been interpreted in terms of how it lead there. In most books he appears as a man on the march to the Little Bighorn, or a glorified corpse thereafter. Death has defined his significance as well. His personal end brought to a climax a defining narrative of American mythology and American guilt.: the conquest and dispossession of the native peoples of the continent. His moral character has stood in for the moral character of the United States.”
There are other worthy books and other varieties of literary satisfaction, but I enjoyed all ten of these books. My hope is that you may as well. Now, to the next stack…
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Publication date: June 10, 2016