The best history books of May

Chris Schluep on May 13, 2020

The best history books of May

There are lots of big history books this month, and by "big" I mean books that cover big subjects. This month offers the kinds of histories that we usually find in the fall, but publishers are avoiding publishing around the election, which is sure to take up our attention. Here's a sample of what you will find this month, and as always you can find our Best History Books of the Month here

The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism by Susan Berfield

Bloomberg investigative reporter Susan Berfield’s The Hour of Fate is the story of two American titans moving inexorably toward a collision that would change history. Although they came from similar social strata, Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan held nearly opposite views on society. Morgan, perhaps the richest man in the world, commanded Wall Street and believed that society should be stewarded from the top down. Roosevelt grew into a progressive, becoming President after the assassination of McKinley and eventually taking on the fight against the industrialists. Author Berfield employs a series of alternating chapters to paint rich portraits of the two men before they even meet. By the time we reach 1902, when President Roosevelt’s government sues the Northern Securities railroad trust, which was organized by Morgan to control the railroads, we feel we know both men well. The basis of the suit is the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the moment is complicated by the massive United Mine Workers Strike. It was a moment that might tip either way. Reading The Hour of Fate feels like looking backward and forward at the same time: the Gilded Age comes to life, as do the historical figures and their individual priorities; but the collision of labor and management, of the rich and the working class, is even now still a work in progress.

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano

Paradise, California, is aptly named. Nestled in the gorgeous Sierra Nevada mountains, its residents prized the nature that surrounded them. While Paradise had been threatened by fire before and had an evacuation plan complete with robocalls, the inferno of November 8, 2018—known as the Camp Fire—was unlike anything the town had seen. The fire surged through chimney-like canyons and leapfrogged over rivers and firebreaks, bearing down on residents just waking. Pulling on eyewitness accounts from firefighters, fleeing citizens, police, and medical personnel, Fire in Paradise does not sensationalize. It doesn’t have to. The first sighting of the fire, the chaotic emptying of the town, a boy swimming across a lake to safety with a cat in a cage on his shoulder, a woman giving birth in the middle of a hospital’s evacuation…all these moments, and more, are extraordinary enough. The humanity and bravery exposed in the middle of unexpected catastrophe shine in this narration, even as tragedy destroys families and 85 people perish in the deadliest wildfire in California history. As wildfire season looms again, Fire in Paradise sounds a warning call we’d do well to heed. —Adrian Liang

The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

The president of the Council on Foreign Relations offers a primer on the biggest challenges the world faces. This book is for experts and laymen alike.

Crucible of Hell: The Heroism and Tragedy of Okinawa, 1945 by Saul David

Okinawa was the largest air-land-sea battle in history. It was a battle that lasted more than 80 days, and it truly was a crucible. Saul David brings those days to brilliant, bloody, dramatic life in his book.

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