Section One: History Books That Made an Impression
Suffering from a bit of guilt because of my friend Brad Beren’s long-standing tradition of sharing an annual accounting of all the books that he has read in the just closing year. You can read it here. It’s an impressive (and maybe intimidating) list covering 42 books–many deep and serious. Brad goes month-by-month and including a brief summary and review. I should also give a shout to another friend, Auren Hoffman, who regularly shares lists of recommended books. It’s easier to be well-read when you have smart friends.
My book report will be much more idiosyncratic–in large part because it hadn’t occurred to me to write one until Brad texted me this morning to urge me to keep track of my reading in 2024.
Because I read and listen to books electronically, I can go back on Libby, Audible and Kindle and see what I read. I am going to just share some highlights on books that made a particular impression. This list grew enough to be a post of its own. My next list will cover several mystery series that I plowed through on long drives (audio) and long plane rides. I have included links to Amazon for convenience but I don’t have an affiliate deal with them.
The Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. This is a bit of an older book but it remains relevant. It’s a story of polar exploration fueled by reckless ambition and imperiled by bad information. I related to this book because we had completed a small boat voyage organized by Chris Michel around Spitsbergen Island north of Norway. Hampton Sides is a helluva writer. Not from this year but his book Blood and Thunder is another classic about the US army’s genocidal war on the Navajos.
A Fever In The Heartland by Tim Egan. When most people hear the words Ku Klux Klan, they immediately think of the Deep South. Egan took a more shocking path. He tells the tale of the Klan in the North. Specifically about the Klan in Indiana in the 1920’s. The Klan was the driving force in Indiana politics and it was only a bare knuckle fight to the finish that dislodged them. Shocking fact #1. The mayor of Portland, OR at that time was an open Klan member. Shocking fact #2. in 1926, 30,000 klan members marched down the Capitol Mall in Washington DC. Shocking fact #3. The Notre Dame football team got into a brawl with the Klan in Indiana because along with blacks and jews, the Klan hated the Irish, Catholics and immigrants. Today’s MAGA, anti-immigrant rants have a historical precedent. The photo below is from the Library of Congress. As bonus recommendation, Egan’s book The Big Burn about the apocalyptic fires that ravaged the West in 1910 is also a classic.
The Fleet At Flood Tide by James Hornfischer. Occasionally reviewers use the word “magisterial” to describe a significant history book. The installment in Hornfischer’s history of the US Navy during the endgame of World War II merits that word. He explains both the grand strategy behind the US strategy of “island hopping” as well as the human stories of carrier pilots, marines, underwater demolition experts, and admirals. All are real, three dimensional people. Like the similarly magisterial Making of the Atom Bomb by RIchard Rhodes, this book demonstrates the horror of the island warfare in the Pacific as well as the excruciating process by which we decided to use the A Bomb on Japan. Even though I have read a fair amount about US history, one of the major surprises was the expansive role of Paul Tibbets. He is well-known as the pilot of the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. However he actually played a huge role in the overall development of nuclear weapins and the strategy for their delivery and use. Bonus recommendation: Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors also by Hornfischer. A page-turning, tear-jerking story of small outgunned and undermanned US ships fighting a critical naval battle agains the best remaining ships in the Japanese navy
West With The Night by Beryl Markham. Partially motivated by a fall safari to Kenya and Tanzania, I finally got around to reading this classic. What was I waiting for? She’s a brilliant writer who describes the hardscrabble life of British colonials. Her story is not all gin and tonics and fluttering fans. She was one of the first, and best, women aviators. She raised race horses. And lived life on her own when that was a rare thing for a young woman. Most chilling, inspiring and amazing segment: when she stares down a large male lion with two Masaai warriors armed with spears and her dog.
Iberia by James MIchener. Another oldie. We went to a wedding in Spain in the fall and I wanted a refresher on Spanish history. This book, written in the 1960s, was massive (as all of his books are) but also immensely worthwhile. Michener first encountered Spain as a starving student bumming his way around working as a deck hand on a steamer. He got off the boat on one side of Spain, vagabonded across the peninsula, and rejoined the boat on the other side. In the meantime, he formed a life-long affection for the Iberian peninsula. As is his wont, he comprehensively catalogs the history and culture of the region. This is a long, slow read but worth it.
Life on The Mississippi by Rinker Buck. I have name envy. I think Rinker Buck is just about the world’s coolest name. Just as Colt McCoy has the perfect name for a quarterback that played for Texas. But I digress. Buck is in the tradition of first person adventure writers. A few years ago, he and his brother built a conestoga wagon, hitched up the mules and recruited the journey across The Oregon Trail in the book of the same name. This time he explored the role of flat bottom cargo boats that were the main means of transportation during the time of America’s boom during the early part of the 19th century. The name of this book is borrowed from Mark Twain and although it starts in Pennsylvania, it does wind up in New Orleans. As with any good “road” book, it’s about the people, places, joys and perils. It also sheds light on a little-known and important chapter in American history.
Next Books Up:
The Last Honest Man by James Risen. A biography of Frank Church, senator from Idaho. He’s known among other things for holding the CIA’s feet to the fire.
The Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard. Her newest addition to an extensive body of work. She tries to cut through the sensationalism and gory stories and tell the real stories of the men who ruled the Roman Empire.