Monday, January 6, 2014

Best Reads from 2013 - History and Biography

For the first time in my life, I actually kept track of the books I read in the past year.  Considering how many books I read, it is quite surprising to me that it took me this long to do this.  It has been a good exercise for me – one that I hope to continue in future years.

That said, since I know what I read in the past year (rather than thinking – “I read that book a year ago, or was it two years ago….”), I am qualified to put together a list of my best reads from the past year.  Since I tend to read in three general categories – religious, non-fiction and fiction – I hope to put together three lists of my reads of 2013.

So here is the first – my best non-fiction reads of 2013.  I tend to have some kind of history or biography book going all the time.  Here are the best ones I read this year (in no particular order).

Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum.  I read Applebaum’s fascinating and disturbing history of the Russian Gulags a few years back.  When I saw this book, I was eager to get into it.  Applebaum tells the powerful and troubling story of how the Communists gradually crushed resistance in Eastern Europe after World War 2.  The most disturbing parts of the book are how the tactics of the Communists parallel the tactics of the “politically correct tolerance” crowd today.

Hellhound on His Trail:  The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin by Hampton Sides.  Hampton Sides is a great writer and this book is as good, if not better, than his book about Kit Carson from 2007.  The story reads like a novel and his pace and the level of suspense he generates are exceptional, especially as the events he narrates are well-known history.
The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson.  Pulitzer Prize winning writer Atkinson completes his trilogy on the history of the American Army in World War 2 Europe with this book.  It is hard for me to say that a book on the painful history of World War 2 could be lyrical in its writing, but that is the word that comes to mind.  Atkinson does a wonderful job painting this powerful story.
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger.  This one surprised me.  I have always been interested in John Quincy Adams and Unger’s book, while likely not the most in-depth account available, was a fascinating read.  Although he was a mediocre President at best, Mr. Adams excelled in everything else (Ambassador, Congressman, Senator, Sec. of State), making him one of the most accomplished Americans in history.

Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I have had this book on my shelf for years, but never got around to reading it until this year.  Stupid me.  Goodwin skillfully weaves Lincoln’s life together with the lives of his Cabinet, a number of whom ran against him for the presidential nomination.  Highly recommended.
Lawrence in Arabia:  War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson.  Another surprise.  I was not familiar with the author, although the topic sounded interesting, especially considering the fact that the Middle East makes headlines every day.  While primarily about Lawrence of Arabia, Anderson introduces the reader to a number of other people whose lives and deeds played pivotal roles in the shaping of the Middle East.

Other non-fiction books read in 2013:

2nd Tier Reads – Very good, not great
The Crimean War by Orlando Figes  (lots of military idiots here…)
Terrible Swift Sword:  The Life of General Philip H. Sheridan by Joseph Wheelan (post-Civil War life very interesting)
Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (quick read, but gets the history generally right)
The Last Crusade:  The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama by Nigel Cliff
Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (see Killing Lincoln above)
Go Down Together:  The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn
The Race for Timbuktu:  In Search of Africa’s City of God by Frank T. Kryza (I love exploration books)
38 Nooses:  Lincoln, Little Crow and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End by Scott W. Berg (we used to live down the road from the site of these events)
Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy (not up to his usual incredible standards)
Neptune’s Inferno – The US Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer

3rd Tier Reads – books that I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
Jungleland by Christopher S. Stewart (anti-climactic)
Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech defined the Cold War Alliance by Philip White
Eisenhower 1956 by David A. Nichols
The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn
Death in the Sahara:  the Lords of the Desert and the Timbuktu Railway Expedition Massacre by Michael Asher
The Blood of Lambs by Kamal Saleem
Frozen in Time:  An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War 2 by Mitchell Zuckoff
Hershey:  Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio 
Unknown Shore:  The Lost History of England’s Arctic Colony by Robert Ruby


  1. Okay, now you've challenged me to do the same this year (keeping track). Great list. Thanks for sharing. My parents read Killing Lincoln and Kennedy, and also Killing Jesus by O'Reilly. They love them, so I may have to read at least one of them.

  2. Thanks Paul. I am not sure anyone else is interested in my book list, but it has been a fun exercise.