The best history books of September

Chris Schluep on September 17, 2020

The best history books of September

September is the beginning of what is traditionally the season of big history books, and this year delivers as expected. Below are four selections from our Best History Books of the Month, but be sure to check out our full list. You will find recent history, as well as history from our deep past. You will find royalty, musicians, war heroes and war criminals, and lots in between. It truly is an exciting season for history books.

Here are four standouts (but again, be sure to check out the full list):

A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom by Brittany K. Barnett

As a child of a mother who did jail time, Brittany K. Barnett understands the grave implications of a parent lost to “the striped Looney Toons suit.” As she writes in A Knock at Midnight: “There’s something about seeing your childhood hero, your guiding star, fallen. It rocks you to your core.” In this deeply personal memoir, Barnett shares how as a young Black girl she was surrounded by drugs growing up in the South—her mother, a nurse, at times was addicted to crack, and her boyfriend dealt drugs—how her family fueled her, why she pursued law, and became dedicated to defending those unfairly incarcerated for minor drug crimes. As she learned, inequality lurked everywhere: “The discrepancy in sentencing blew my mind. I began to wonder whether America’s harsh drug sentences were tied to the drugs in a man’s hand or the melanin in his skin.” While A Knock at Midnight is a brilliant memoir of Barnett’s own journey, it also chronicles the stories of three of her clients. Their lives—including their crimes, their families, and their jail time—are rendered with such care and compassion that it is impossible to put this book down. It is also impossible not to root for Barnett and her clients as she fights to get them the justice they deserve, and never had. A Knock at Midnight is a profoundly moving memoir that reveals the incredibly racist world of the feds, the courts, and the laws that throw away people’s lives—for life. —Al Woodworth

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham

Those who were saddened by John Lewis's passing in July could take solace in knowing that historian John Meacham would soon be publishing a book about the great man. Titled His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Meacham drew on decades of interviews that he had performed with Lewis. The result is a moving portrait of Lewis, great-grandson of a slave, 17-term congressman, and civil rights leader who, at 25 years old, marched with Martin Kuther King, Jr. in Selma. As Meacham writes, Lewis "embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term."

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War--a Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans is deeply-researched history that reads like a character driven novel. At the end of World War II, the United States began turning its attention to the Soviet Union, and the relatively new CIA became integral to the covert effort to confront the Soviets. Much as he did in his epic Lawrence in Arabia, Anderson focuses on the experiences of a handful of men in order to tell the wider story. The result is both intimate and sweeping. Anderson follows four agents whose work was spread across the globe, initially directed at maintaining American ideals, but eventually decaying under the weight of politics, myopia, and overreach. Each of these men bore great costs for the work they did in the CIA. As they were altering the course of world events, the work was altering—sometimes quite severely—the courses of their lives.

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 by Ian W. Toll

Ian W. Toll's Pacific War trilogy began in 2011 with the publication of Pacific Crucible, a book that brought Pearl Harbor to vivid life and drew readers into the events—both strategic and personal—of World War II's war in the Pacific, including Midway. In the second installment, The Conquering Tide, Toll covered the period between 1942 and 1944, which involved bloody fighting in Japan's island empire, including the Marianas. In this final book in the series, we enter the endgame. In the final year of the war, MacArthur brought his fleets back to the Philippines, and the mainland of Japan was bombed. Fans of this trilogy know that Toll is a master historian capable of raising chills in a reader.

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