Monday, January 4, 2016

Best books I read in 2015 - History and Biography

For the third year in a row, I took the time to track the books I read over the past year.  This post and the two that will follow it will highlight the best books I read in the following categories:  History and Biography, Ministry and Faith, and Fiction.

As many of you know, I love a good history book.  And I read a number of great ones this year.  Here are 6 of the best, in no particular order, followed by the others I read this past year.

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney.  James Madison is often considered the forgotten Founding Father of America.  Cheney's book does a good job revealing the real James Madison, his battles with chronic health problems and especially his tireless efforts in the making of the US Constitution.  It is worth the read to get to know someone nearly as important as Washington and Jefferson.

The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in World War II Italy by Mark Zuehlke.  2015 was a year I read a lot of Canadian history.  Since that is the country of my birth, I thought it appropriate.  Zuehlke is quickly becoming the dean of modern Canadian military history.  This year I read 4 of his books on the Canadian army during World War 2 – The Gothic Line was the most obscure and the best.  Zuehlke puts the reader on the front line as Canadian troops seek to be break the last German defense line in Italy and end the war.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre.  This was easily the best history/biography book I read this year.  I had a hard time putting it down.  The book focused on Kim Philby, the Russian spy embedded in the MI6 in Britain and his best friend Nicholas Elliot.  Philby was a traitor, Elliot ever loyal to Britain.  The tale of their friendship and Philby's eventual betrayal is a powerful one and lays bare the price of living a double life.

Midnight in Peking:  How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French.  True crime meets history in Paul French's book about a murder in China.  Set in China's capital in 1937, immediately before the Second World War, French lays bare the turmoil and the culture of foreigners living in China in the face of the Japanese menace.  Well-paced, French's book reads like a novel.

American Colossus:  The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H. W. Brands.  I anticipated this book to be a series of portraits of the giants of 19th century capitalism - Vanderbilt, Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller and so on.  While each of these men show up time and time again, Brands' book is a fascinating portrait of how unbridled capitalism affected the country (for good and ill) and how society eventually began to respond to its excesses.

Polk: The Man who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R Borneman.  James K. Polk is one of the more obscure presidents in US history, but also one of the most successful.  Very few presidents could say they announced their goals prior to taking office and then achieved every one of them in a single four year presidential term.  In the process, he expanded the reach of the country and the power of the office of the presidency, paving the way for all modern presidents.

2nd Tier Reads - very good, not quite great:
The Whiskey Rebellion:  George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty by William Hogeland
Operation Husky:  The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10-August 7, 1943 by Mark Zuehlke
The Liri Valley:  Canada’s World War 2 Breakthrough to Rome by Mark Zuehlke
Enduring Courage:  Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed by John F. Ross
Bolivar:  American Liberator by Marie Arana
Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders:  The True Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada by Greg Malone
The Boys in the Boat:  Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Missoula:  Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
River of Darkness:  Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon by Buddy Levy
Hunting Eichmann:  How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Mr. Hockey:  My Story by Gordie Howe
Marching as to War:  Canada’s Turbulent Years, 1899-1953 by Pierre Berton
The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness by Brian Payton
Lost to the West:  The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth
Breakout from Juno:  First Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign, July 4-August 21, 1944 by Mark Zuehlke
Operation Mincement:  How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben MacIntyre
A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War:  How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 by Joseph Loconte
The Boys of Pointe du Hoc by Douglas Brinkley
Honor in the Dust:  Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream by Gregg Jones
Persian Fire:  The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland
The Maps of Chickamauga by David A. Powell
Columbus:  The Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen
The Dark Defile:  Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842 by Diana Preston
Montrose by C. V. Wedgwood
The Savior Generals:  How Five Great Commanders saved Wars that were Lost – from Ancient Greece to Iraq by Victor Davis Hanson
Fortress Malta:  An Island under Siege, 1940-43 by James Holland

3rd Tier Reads - I finished them, but they were mildly disappointing:
The Trigger:  Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher
The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them by Tim Howard
The Year without Summer:  1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. and Nicholas P. Klingaman
Savage Harvest:  A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
Waterloo:  The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell
The Lost Spy:  An American in Stalin’s Secret Service by Andrew Meier

4th Tier reads - more than mildly disappointing:
17 Carnations:  the Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-up in History by Andrew Morton

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