It's always fun to put together a "best of" list of history books. A big part of the fun comes from knowing that the list will include books about all kinds of subjects. Not to get too deep, but all experience is history once it has happened--so there are all sorts of histories, and experiences, to tell. Below is a small selection of our Best History Books of the Year So Far. Have a look, but be sure to check out the entire list.
Casey Cep’s Furious Hours is composed of many parts, and any one of those parts would make a good book. Together, they make a great book, describing the elements of a gothic true crime set in the south, and then placing Harper Lee there to cover the trial and write about it. When relatives of the Reverend Willie Maxwell started dying in the 1970s, many locals suspected him of practicing voodoo. The police thought otherwise, noting that Maxwell had taken out life insurance policies on the deceased relatives; still, for years Maxwell managed to evade punishment. Justice eventually caught up with the Reverend when a relative shot him dead at his stepdaughter’s funeral. And that’s where Harper Lee comes in. Lee, who had assisted her friend Truman Capote in researching In Cold Blood, wanted to observe the vigilante’s trial with the idea of writing a book about it. Furious Hours sets one of our most beloved authors in an Alabama courtroom to watch the drama unfold. Then Cep describes the years when Harper Lee reportedly tried to write about the case. This is a story concerned with justice and the truth, but it is also about art, mystery, and our darkest temptations.
Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by William H. McRaven
How do you follow up a bestseller like Make Your Bed? In the case of Admiral William H. McRaven, you write a book about your life. It helps that McRaven was a Navy SEAL. It also helps that he led the raid to get Osama bin Laden, that he was in charge of guarding Saddam Hussein (visiting him daily), and that he led the team that rescued Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates (Captain Phillips was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movies). I could mention his near-death experiences (a parachuting and a boating accident stand out in my mind), or his pitch perfect storytelling, or the fact that he reported to presidents. But you get the picture. The kind of wisdom that he dispensed in that little book Make Your Bed is also in this book. All the success this book has had is well-deserved.
In May of 1980, five heavily-armed men attempted to rob a bank in southern California. When things went sideways, they found themselves in a shootout with police that seemed to capture the weirdness of the time--these former landscapers-turned-doomsdayers were trying to get money to build a compound, and the amount of destruction that resulted from the shootout and ensuing chase was almost hard to believe. Then came the trial of the three surviving robbers, which Houlahan covers in depth. Compelling action scenes, a riveting trial, and lots of detail and observation make this one a standout in true crime.
David McCullough has drawn from a collection of diaries and letters to paint a portrait of five men who moved to the Northwest Territory to carve a town out of the forest. They faced floods, fires, wolves, and bears. They had a tumultuous relationship with the natives from the region. There were no roads, no bridges, no homes. Just will and desire, which McCullough, as usual, expertly portrays.
Rick Atkinson tells the stories of the battles of Lexington and Concord to Trenton and Princeton through the people involved: people like Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. The details are what make this book--the first in a trilogy--so readable. This is great research coupled with a grasp of narrative nonfiction that earned Atkinson the Pulitzer.
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