Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best Reads of 2014 - History/Biography

The New Year is upon us and, as I did last year, I want to look back on the best books I read over the past year.  As I have done in the past, these lists will be divided into three separate posts – history/biography, fiction and ministry/faith-oriented books.

I read a lot of book history/biography books this year.  I always have at least one book in this genre going at all times.  Here are the best (listed in no particular order), and at the end of the post, the rest. 

Paris 1919 by Margaret McMillan.  World War 1 ended in November, 1918, but that did not mean the fighting stopped.  It just moved inside.  McMillan’s book is a fascinating account of the political machinations behind the treaty that formally ended World War 1.  She carefully crafts portraits of men like US President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and others.  Especially interesting to me were the discussions and decisions about dividing up Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the defunct Ottoman Empire.

How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark.  I am a Rodney Stark fan, and in this book he has served up another historical treatise seemingly meant to drive the political correct crowd nuts.  Looking at history from a sociologist’s viewpoint, he gives a convincing picture of why the West is modern and other cultures are still catching up.

The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This is a fascinating book about 2 US Presidents and the ground-breaking journalists of McClure’s magazine who covered them.  The contrast is stark between Roosevelt, who was a favorite of those journalists and shared their progressive views, and Taft, who was unable to relate to the press and as a result, got skewered by them on a regular basis.

Into the Silence:  The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis.  Probably the best history book I read this past year, it is the story of the multiple attempts by British mountaineers to conquer the highest peak in the world.  The grit and determination of these men, even in the face of tragedy and death, was unbelievable.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides.  Hampton Sides’ ability to tell a story just gets better and better.  This is the story of the polar voyage of the USS Jeannette, their effort to reach the North Pole and their dramatic struggle to survive after the sinking of their ship.  Powerful story – just don’t read it in the winter.  BRRR!

Mission at Nuremberg:  An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend.  Townsend tells the tale of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor and US Army Chaplain who was assigned to provide spiritual care to the worst of the Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg trials.  As Gerecke leads some of these men back into communion with the church, the book explores the meaning of repentance and forgiveness for some of the worst offenders in history.

Paradise Lost:  Smyrna 1922, the Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance by Giles Milton.  Usually when I read a history book, I have some basic knowledge of the story being told.  Not with this book.  Milton tells the story of Smyrna, a city in western Turkey that had long been an example of true tolerance between Christians, Jews and Muslims.  In the aftermath of World War 1, ignorance, greed, militant nationalism and intolerance led to its destruction.  Paradise Lost is a sad story with real life application today.

2nd Tier Reads – very good, not great.
Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray
The Lost Patrol:  The Mounties’ Yukon Tragedy by Dick North
The First Tycoon:  The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
A Hanging Offense:  The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers by Buckner F. Melton Jr. 
The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel (much better than the movie)
The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. McDonald (Canada's greatest disaster)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson
Adopted Son:  Washington, Lafayette and the Friendship the Saved the Revolution by David A. Clary
The Envoy:  The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate closing Months of World War 2 by Alex Kershaw
A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62 by Alistair Horne
Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Shooting Victoria:  Madness, Mayhem and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy
Dark Invasion:  1915, German’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum
Escape from North Korea:  The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick
Failure in the Saddle:  Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign by David A. Powell
Cavalryman of the Lost Cause:  A Biography of J. E. B. Stuart by Jeffry D. Wert

3rd Tier Reads – books I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
The Abacus and the Cross:  The Story of the Pope who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages by Nancy Marie Brown
When America First Met China by Eric Jay Dolin
Vanished:  The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War 2 by Wil S. Hylton
Prairie Fever:  British Aristocrats in the American West by Peter Pagnamenta
Midnight Rising:  John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz
Killing Patton by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (not sure I buy their ultimate premise)
Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller
Alexander II – the Last Great Czar by Edward Radzinsky

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