12 books of Christmas: A history buff's guide

By Chuck Springston
12 books of Christmas: A history buff's guide

What would we put on our wish list? Here are a dozen good books for the history lover's tree.

    Nothing says happy holidays like a good history book. Surely, that’s something we can all agree upon. The hitch is deciding which books to buy for your favorite history buff—or for yourself, using that gift card you received.
    It was a great year for history books, and luminaries delivered memorable works. Joseph J. Ellis offered insights on the Revolutionary War, Doris Kearns Goodwin examined the rift between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and Chris Matthews wrote a memoir exploring the odd-couple friendship of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan.
    And there are many other notable books as well. It is hard to narrow the wish list, but that is precisely what we’ve done. Below are 12 books published since December 2012. Subjects range from the letters of Benjamin Franklin’s sister to the machinations of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
    The books are listed chronologically from Colonial days to modern times. The summaries generally are edited excerpts from the publishers’ descriptions.

The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
By Jill Lepore
Knopf (October 2013), 464 pages
Author bio: Lepore is a history professor at Harvard University and writes for The New Yorker.  “Book of Ages” was a finalist for a National Book Award. An earlier book, “New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Summary: Lepore tells the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister. Like her brother, Jane Franklin was a passionate reader, a gifted writer and a shrewd political commentator. Benjamin Franklin wrote more letters to her than to anyone else. Lepore’s study of Jane Franklin offers a different perspective on Benjamin Franklin and the country’s founding. 

A City, a Siege, a Revolution
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking Adult (April 2013), 416 pages
Author bio: Philbrick, former editor of a sailing magazine and a writer/editor of books about sailing, won a National Book Award for “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.” He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.”
Summary:  Besides describing in detail the June 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, Philbrick reconstructs the trail of events in the run-up to the battle, including the Boston Tea Party and the fighting at Lexington and Concord. There are portraits of major figures such as Paul Revere, George Washington and patriot leader Joseph Warren, a physician who was killed during the battle.

The Birth of American Independence
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf (June 2013), 240 pages
Author bio: Ellis is a history professor at Mount Holyoke College. His other books include “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” which won a National Book Award, and “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation,” a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Summary:  There was much more to the summer of 1776 than the Declaration of Independence. In this narrative and analysis of events during that period, Ellis intertwines political and military actions to show how they influenced each other. He looks at the war not only from the American side but also from the perspective of the British. 

Choosing Sides in the War of 1812
By Gene Allen Smith
Palgrave Macmillan (January 2013), 272 pages
Author bio: Smith is a history professor at Texas Christian University and curator of history at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Summary: Thousands of slaves enlisted with the British during the American Revolution, so when the War of 1812 began, no one could be sure what slaves—and free African Americans—would do. Smith explains how both combatants tried to recruit the slaves and how they responded. He writes: “The War of 1812 represented a major dividing line in the history of American race relations, one that is often obscured by the Civil War.” 

Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877
By Brenda Wineapple
Harper (August 2013), 736 pages
Author bio: Wineapple is a professor at The New School and Columbia University. Her writings include books about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson.
Summary: Mixing cultural and political history, the book takes readers on a journey that begins with the death of John Quincy Adams, travels through bitter divisions over slavery before the Civil War and then chronicles the Reconstruction era. Along the way, Wineapple describes the emergence of the women’s rights movement and the westward expansion that took George Armstrong Custer to Little Big Horn. 

The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865
By James Oakes
W.W. Norton & Co. (December 2012), 596 pages
Author bio: Oakes is a history professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His books include “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics,” which won a Lincoln Prize, given for scholarly work on Lincoln’s era. “Freedom National” also won a Lincoln Prize.
Summary:  Oakes argues that the Civil War, from the very beginning, was a fight to destroy slavery, not just to save the Union. He sees the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, as the final act in the war and recounts the actions Lincoln took to make sure that the war didn’t end with slavery intact. 

Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster (November 2013), 928 pages
Author bio: Goodwin, a former Harvard professor and assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, has written books on Johnson, the Kennedys, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. She won a Pulitzer Prize for “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.” Goodwin won a Lincoln Prize for “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
Summary:  Goodwin uses the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft to tell the story of the first decade of the Progressive era. The two men started out as friends but ended up in a fight for the 1912 presidential nomination that split the Republican Party and put Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House. The book also discusses the boost Roosevelt’s reform efforts got from the work of muckraking journalists such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens.

How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark
Harper (March 2013), 736 pages
Author bio: Christopher Clark is a professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He won the U.K.’s Wolfson History Prize for “Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947.”
Summary: The missteps that started the war America entered in 1917 are traced minute by minute as Clark follows the actions of leaders throughout the capitals of Europe. The book also puts the events of 1914 in the context of complex alliances decades in the making.

Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941
By Lynne Olson
Random House (March 2013), 576 pages
Author bio: Olson is a former reporter who covered Moscow for The Associated Press and the White House for The Baltimore Sun. She has written five other books on American or European history, including “Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour.”
Summary: A vigorous, sometimes bitter debate preceded U.S. involvement in World War II, as interventionists argued with isolationists. Olson focuses on the two most famous names on each side: President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh, who became an unofficial leader of the isolationist movement. The weapons used in the fight between the opposing worldviews included chicanery and intrigue, which Olson documents. 

The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt and Co. (May 2013), 896 pages
Author bio: Atkinson, a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, has written five other books on military history, including the first two books in “The Liberation Trilogy,” a World War II saga of the fight in Europe from 1942 to 1945. The first book in the series won a Pulitzer Prize. Atkinson also won two Pulitzer Prizes as a journalist.
Summary: The conclusion of Atkinson’s trilogy follows the final campaign of the war, from Normandy to the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge and the fall of the Third Reich. Atkinson tells the story from the view of participants at every level: presidents, generals, lieutenants and teenage riflemen. 

Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide
By Gary J. Bass
Knopf (September 2013), 528 pages
Author bio: Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a former reporter for The Economist. He also has written books about war crimes tribunals and the origins of humanitarian intervention to stop atrocities around the globe.
Summary: Using previously unheard White House tapes and recently declassified documents, Bass details the support President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger gave to Pakistan’s military dictatorship in 1971, as it killed hundreds of thousands to squelch a liberation movement in what is now Bangladesh. Millions of refugees flooded into India, creating tensions that sparked the Indo-Pakistani War. Nixon and Kissinger, partly because of their dislike of India’s leader, illegally supplied weapons to Pakistan and dismissed genocide concerns of U.S. diplomats, Bass found. 

When Politics Worked
By Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster (October 2013), 448 pages
Author bio: Matthews, a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a top aide to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, is the host of “Hardball” on MSNBC. He also has written books about John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Summary: Democrat O’Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan, “the Gipper,” were far apart on the political spectrum but could come together and compromise on important national issues -- taxes, welfare, Social Security and relations with the Soviet Union. They showed how leaders of different ideologies can nonetheless respect each other and get things done in Washington, Matthews says.

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