Thursday, December 15, 2005

Big Tent Holiday Reading List - 2005

Here it is: a list of books that we all read in the last year or so (but weren't necessarily published in the last year) and recommend for the holiday season. Believe it or not, we did not share notes on the list yet there were no repeats. Considering our areas of interest and expertise, it should come as no surprise that twentieth century history, especially military history, dominates. But there are a few surprises, and quite a few bargain books. Enjoy. (Of course you must first purchase and read Derek Catsam's, Bleeding Red: A Red Sox Fan's Diary of the 2004 Season.)


The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America's Cold War Victory, by Derek Leebaert. An interesting argument on the Cold War, with some provocative points about some of the accepted truths of American policy.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin [series]. Very good fantasy series that combines fantasy elements with a story (loosely) based on the Wars of the Roses. Martin doesn't shy away from sex and graphic violence, and isn't afraid to kill off his heroes, which is rare in fantasy books.

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson. An intriguing argument, whether you think it's right or not, and it makes me feel better about watching so much TV.

Utah Beach by Joseph Balkoski. Building on his previous works of Beyond the Beachhead and Omaha Beach, this book gives an excellent one-day look at American military forces in WWII. With a little luck and good leadership, the Americans were virtually unstoppable.

Arabs at War by Kenneth Pollack. Good for two reasons. First, he provides a larger cultural explanation for poor Arab military performance in the 20th century. Second, it provides, in one place, detailed accounts of almost all Arab military actions between 1948-1991.

The Cold War edited by Robert Cowley. Consisting of 27 separate essays, it gives a much deeper understanding of the military background to numerous Cold War events. Many of the essays make use of recently available documents from the East bloc countries, and many give glimpses of paths untaken in the Cold War.

Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders, by Gerhard L. Weinberg. The newest book from the foremost living historian of Nazi foreign policy and the author of the magisterial World at Arms, this short book looks at how the most important leaders of the Second World War understood the war, and how they envisioned how the postwar order would emerge after their nation proved victorious. Each chapter explores an individual leader (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Chiang Kai-Shek, Stalin, Churchill, De Gaulle, and FDR are his subjects) and Weinberg provides excellent citations for other studies of these men and their exploits. Weinberg's excellence as a writer and historian are on fine display here, and this one is just as accessible for general readers as it is for scholars. An excellent read.

The Myth of Hitler's Pope, by Rabbi David G. Dalin. A controversial book, and one that does not quite accomplish what it wants to, but nevertheless an important contribution to the still-vociferous debates over Pius XII's response to Nazism and the role of traditional anti-Semitism in Catholic responses to the Holocaust. Dalin's book does not break a lot of new ground as far as source material goes, but it does summarize well the opposing viewpoints by scholars about Pius, and does an excellent job illustrating why those who demonize Pius go way too far. The polemical nature of studies of Pius XII is clearly illustrated, though Dalin does not do enough to make his own book an exception to this trend. But, for anyone wanting to read a fine book that summarizes the issues and makes a strong case for those who consider Pius to have done good things for Jews despite his other flaws, then this book is a must read. (Note: for what I consider to be one of the best treatments of this issue, see Martin Rhonheimer's 2003 article from First Things.)

Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, by Stephen G. Fritz. This book focuses on the interactions between American GIs and German civilians during the American push into the heart of Germany in 1945. Focusing mostly on American forces moving through Franconia, Fritz examines the initial contacts and points of difficulty that emerged between conquering forces and conquered. Of particular interest to me are his discussions of the initial attempts by American military forces to govern areas under their control. The clear ideological divide between the victorious Americans and citizens whose own ideas about their nation (and its enemies) had proven to be so utterly wrong gives this study a poignancy not seen in a lot of other studies that explore the immediate days after Germany's defeat.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean GULAG, by Kang Chol-Hwan. This is a crushing book. The author, now a journalist in South Korea, provides a searing firsthand account of his own experience in the Gulags of North Korea. Though much of his story will sound familiar to those who have read memoirs of victims of Stalin's Gulag (i.e. Gulag Archipelago, Man is Wolf to Man, etc.), Hwan's account is all the more important because it illustrates clearly the true nature and threat of the North Korean regime. I am assigning this book for the students in my Totalitarianism in History course this spring.

A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, by Matthew J. Hockenos. An excellent study of how German Protestant leaders in the postwar years confronted their dubious history under the Nazis. This serves as an excellent corrective for any who think that only German Catholics and the Vatican have to explain their past interactions with Hitler. In fact, as Hockenos makes clear, German Protestants have as much--indeed, more--to confront than their Catholic counterparts. Just a tremendous book.

First Great Triumph, by Warren Zimmerman. An engaging account of the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Elihu Root to make America into a world power. Zimmerman's conclusions are sound and he has a keen eye for anecdotes. For example: "Yet even in his decline Hay's humor remained as sharp as ever. He described to a friend a meeting during the Boxer Rebellion with the Chiense minister Wu Ting-fang, who was not noted for clarity of expression: 'Minister Wu came by this morning and stayed for two hours, at the conclusion of which Wu was Hazy and Hay was Woozy.'" At the very least, you will find great material for lectures.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones. Men of Tomorrow is a history of the origins of the Golden Age of comic books. That might not sound too interesting, but Jones does biographies of the great names, and in so doing touches on all sorts of topics, including Jewish American culture in the 1920s and 1930s, prohibition, gangsters, World War II, and some of the key issues of the 1940s and 1950s. I don't agree with all of Jones's conclusions, but I learned something new on every page (for example, did you know Charles Atlas--the guy who made skinny weaklings strong--was an Italian immigrant born Angelo Siciliano?)

The Americans at D-Day and The Americans at Normandy, by John McManus. These are really two parts of one large study. I reviewed the two books, and even though I am familiar with the material I found McManus's writing and use of original sources compelling. Individually, the Normandy volume is fresher because the D-Day material has been gone over many times. But together, the two books are as good and readable account as you can get of the American war effort in Northern Europe in the summer of 1944.

Harry Potter (all of them), by J.K. Rowling. Resistance is futile...and unnecessary. I'm not saying the Potter books are as good as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. But they are in the neighborhood, and I can't really think of a better compliment

My reading turns out to be pretty humdrum. I went to my purchase history and saw the new(ish) books I have purchased in the last few months. Some of them turned out to be quite good:

Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Much better than I expected. Great book for the non-specialist who hasn't read the book from the 1930s that covers much of the same material. She is a very good writer. I have already pulled material from this book to put in my lectures.

The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, by Christopher Andrew. Spies, documents, the third world... what's not to like. I haven't tried to read this book from beginning to end, but I pull it off the shelf at least once/week to look something up. I am not sure what that says about my life.

Henry Adams and the Making of America, by Garry Wills. Another book I wasn't expecting to like as much as I did. Wills is a good writer and an interesting thinker. I was impressed at what he was able to draw out of a story about the writing of a story. Making intellectual history this much fun to read is a pretty impressive feat.

The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, by Forrest McDonald. Some critics say that the first half of this book is better than the second half. Who cares? McDonald is one of our greatest living historians. Even when I disagree I am glad to hear what he has to say.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore, by James T. Patterson. So much great material here. Patterson has a good eye for the best line, best quotation. Again, a must read for anyone who writes

Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s by Gil Troy. This book will not be the final word on the Reagan years, but it is a damn good start. At least he takes Reagan seriously.


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