I enjoy history and good biography – I have a book like this going all the time. As you can see, I had a strange fascination with the books of Ken McGoogan and the history of the American West this year. We will see what next year brings.
Here the books that stood out this year.
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles. I always look forward to a new T. J. Stiles book. In this book, Stiles portrays George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War hero slain at the battle of Little Bighorn. Custer is portrayed as a man out of a place in the developing United States. The only thing he does well is fight, which is what ultimately killed him.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. While I realize the Hamilton is a Broadway sensation, I read this book to learn more about a man who is at times vilified, at other times forgotten as a founding father of America. Chernow is an excellent biographer – his portrait is exhaustive, highlighting Hamilton’s brilliance as well as his failings.
A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge by Charles B. MacDonald. Written in the 1980’s, MacDonald’s book may have been superseded by newer research, but very few books do as well communicating the storyline of the grimmest battle on the Western Front during World War 2. MacDonald was a participant, serving as a company commander in the midst of the fighting in Belgium.
One Day In August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe by David O’Keefe. The raid on Dieppe during World War 2 is part of the Canadian identity, and one of its tragedies. Part of the reason for the tragedy is that no one really knows why so many lives were wasted for an operation that seemed to have no purpose. O’Keefe, using new research, seeks to shed light on the hidden purpose for the costly raid.
Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer who Discovered the Fate of Franklin by Ken McGoogan. Easily the best history/biography book I read this past year. I am fascinated by Arctic exploration, and John Rae is one of the unsung heroes of it. His accomplishments are many, including the first to find evidence of the lost Franklin expedition, even though today he is virtually unknown.
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo. The second best history/biography book I read this year. Many people have written many pages about the battle of Gettysburg, few have done it with such an excellent blend of writing and research. I am looking forward to reading more of Guelzo’s books – I already have Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President on my short list.
The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. The story of the Indian wars in the west has been told many times, most famously from the perspective of the Indian in books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Cozzens’ portrayal of this period of American history is brilliant, well-written and profoundly balanced.
Those are the best, here are the rest (in no particular order):
2nd Tier books – very good, recommended.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell (honorable mention)
Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood
Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers by James B. Donovan (the true story behind the movie)
Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West by Michael Punke
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Geronimo by Robert M. Utley
Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War by John D. Lukacs
The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who made England by Dan Jones
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary who became an American Hero by Timothy Egan (Montana’s first governor)
A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes by Frederik Allen
Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark
Tragedy at Dieppe: Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942 by Mark Zuehlke
How the Scots Invented Canada by Ken McGoogan
Wrecked in Yellowstone: Greed, Obsession and the untold Story of Yellowstone’s Most Infamous Shipwreck by Mike Stark
The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathon Fenby
Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor who Inspired Coleridge’s Masterpiece by Ken McGoogan
If You Can Keep it: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas
Valour Road by John Nadler (3 World War 1 heroes from the same Winnipeg street)
The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris
Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy (honorable mention)
Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs by Jim Rasenberger
Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsessions and the Remaking of Arctic History by Ken McGoogan (honorable mention)
MacArthur at War: World War 2 in the Pacific by Walter Borneman
The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge
3rd Tier reads – good, but somewhat disappointing:
The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore