Bruce gets his ideas for his Bruce’s History Lessons column and his Thinking Out Loud blog from a wide variety of sources, but his primary source material is the countless histories, biographies and current events publications that he reads on a daily basis. “Reading really is one of my favorite pastimes,” he says.
Periodically in this space Bruce will share with his readers a book he thinks is especially noteworthy, and include a short summary. The recommendations will include books for all age groups and areas of interest. You never know what will capture his interest!
Bruce’s latest recommendations are (Spring 2015):
Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees. This is one of the best books I have read on the most famous of the Nazi death camps. The book is full of information about the politics and inner workings of Auschwitz and the other death camps, but Rees mostly tells the story through the eyes of death camp survivors, which is what makes the book so unforgettable.
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright. Wright, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, the story of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center (which I previously recommended), has written a magnificent account of the Camp David Accords, in which President Jimmy Carter, Israeli leader Menachem Begin and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat spent 13 days at Camp David, Maryland, negotiating a Middle East peace that earned Sadat and Begin the Nobel Peace Prize. The rivalries, passionate disagreements, angry threats, and the Herculean, and ultimately successful, efforts to keep the talks on track are portrayed in lucid prose and exquisite detail.
The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson. London’s quirky mayor has written a paean to Winston Churchill that is factual, yet fun to read, in part because Johnson inserts himself into the story in an engaging way. I don’t normally like it when authors intrude upon their subjects, but here it works.
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Cheney offers little that is new, but it’s well written and researched, and, hey, it’s about my hero and favorite Founding Father.
Bruce also recommends:
Bruce’s History Lessons, Books I and II. A shameless plug, yes, but definitely recommended. Both five-year collections of Bruce’s newspaper columns — years 2001–2006, and 2006–2011 — can be purchased on the “Buy the Books” link on the home page of this website, or on amazon.com.
Destiny of the Republic (Doubleday) by Candice Millard. Billed as “A tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a president,” this outstanding book alternately describes President James A. Garfield’s all-too-short presidency (a presidency of great promise), his tragic assassination, the descent into insanity of his assassin, Charles Guiteau, the incompetence and hubris of the doctors who could have saved Garfield’s life but instead hastened his death, and the desperate attempts by inventor Alexander Graham Bell to build a machine that could detect the location of the fatal bullet lodged in Garfield’s body. It reads almost like a thriller, and Millard is a graceful, engaging writer.
The Business of May Next (University Press of Virginia) by William Lee Miller. I have long considered James Madison the most underrated Founding Father. He is chiefly responsible for two of the three documents on which our nations is founded — the Constitution and Bill of Rights — and yet history pays him little attention. No book does a better job of explaining Madison’s contribution to our government than does Miller’s book, which is not so much a biography of Madison’s life (plenty of other books do that), as it is an examination of his thinking process in creating our constitutional republic, starting with the most important one-man “skull session” in our history when, at his Montpelier home in Orange County, Va., Madison studied governments throughout our history. His goal was to determine what governments had worked, hadn’t worked, and why, so that he could cherry-pick from the past in order to fashion a workable government for his young country. Miller brilliantly describes that process. In addition, Miller is that rarity among historians, an engaging, even occasionally amusing, prose writer.
Plain, Honest Men – The Making of the American Constitution (Random House) by Richard Beeman. Beeman’s book is a thoroughly researched, very well-written account of those four grueling months in 1787, in Philadelphia, Pa., when delegates to the Constitutional Convention from 12 states (Rhode Island never showed) wrestled with the momentous task of creating a new government that would finally unite the fractious, often feuding American states into one nation. The book details the many arguments — some well known, some not — over how to divide power among the branches of government, how to divide power between the national government and the states, how much power to give the executive branch (one of the most challenging debates given their unhappy experience with their previous chief executive, King George III), how to treat the institution of slavery (a hugely contentious debate between the southern and northern states), and many more. If nothing else, the book’s description of the many journeys the delegates traveled from bitterly divisive debate, to compromise, to final consensus can be a lesson to all of us today. A book well worth reading.
The Storm of War – A New History of the Second World War [HarperCollins] by Andrew Roberts. This is arguably the best written, most comprehensive study of World War II I have read in at least a decade. It thoroughly examines the causes of the war, the battles, tactics and strategies. Further, unlike many historians who give too much credit to the “Western” members of the Allied forces, America, Great Britain its dominion nations, Roberts expertly shows how far more critical to the war’s outcome was the fighting on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union. It is true that without western aid, especially aid from the United States, the Soviet Union might not have held out against Germany, but as Robert’s points out, excluding deaths from aerial bombings, four out of every five Germans who died in WWII died fighting Soviet forces in the East. Yes, D-Day was a crucial turning point, as books, movies, and countless documentaries show. But a scant two weeks after D-Day, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, the counter-offensive against Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of June 1941. In terms of men, material, costs and casualties – and importance – Bagration dwarfed D-Day.