What I’m Reading

Books I think you’ll enjoy (besides mine)…



Bloody Crimes Cover

Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis, by James L. Swanson – I thought this book was brilliant, and as a bonus, it was hard to put down. Swanson (who is the author of a book called Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, about the chase for John Wilkes Booth) deftly juxtaposes the epochal event thatwas Lincoln’s funeral (which he says transforms Lincoln from man to myth) with Jefferson Davis’s escape from Richmond, his dramatic sojourn Southward as he evades Union posses, and his eventual capture and imprisonment. I highly suggest you read this book.



The Great SecretThe Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster that Launched the War on Cancer, by Jennifer Conant – Another real page-turner and a terrific job by the author of meshing two events. The first is the Luftwaffe bombing of the critical Allied port of Bari, Italy (what later became known as “the second Pearl Harbor), including an American ship that was carrying a top-secret cargo of 2,000 mustard-gas bombs. Sailors begin dying of mysterious symptoms, but doctors also discover that the mustard gas has a toxic effect on white blood cells. Mustard gas, both a killer and a cure, becomes integral in ushering in a new era of cancer research led by the Sloan Kettering Institute. Conant shows how a horrific tragedy gave birth to a medical triumph. What a read!



December '41 Cover

December ’41, by William Martin – This is my historical fiction pick for this issue! It’s shortly after Pearl Harbor, and a German agent is planning to kill U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the night he lights the National Christmas tree in Washington D.C. The clock is ticking, the thrills and twists are fantastic, and…well, it’s fiction — so I can’t give too much else away. Bill Martin is at his best in this book — his research is impeccable and his narrative is relentless. Read this if you (or anyone you know) enjoys World War II and/or a great spy thriller.



Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your PhonWhy Learn History Covere), by Sam Wineburg – If you’re not thrilled with the way history is taught in our schools (in general, I’m certainly not), this is a must read. Wineburg explores and explains why learning and knowing history is important, but also takes a look at how we can teach students to discern how to use and analyze sources. We are surrounded by more readily available information than ever before, but a huge percentage of it is inaccurate — sometimes wrong though well-meaning; sometimes deliberately deceitful, but pernicious either way. This is not the fastest-moving book you will read this year, but I found it full of important insights about students, teachers, and the “craft” of teaching (and learning) history.



To Hell and BackTo Hell and Back: The Classic Memoir of World War II by America’s Most Decorated Soldier, by Audie Murphy — I knew of Audie Murphy, of course, one of the most iconic infantry soldiers in all of American history, not just in the Second World War. He received more than 20 medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor during WWII. What I did NOT know is that Murphy is an outstanding writer. His memoir was first published in 1949, and the copyright was re-issued in 1977, but I simply had never read it before. Murphy gives us an up-close and very personal view of combat and brotherhood — his close relationship with his buddies, the randomness of those who live and those who die, the fear, the savagery of the fighting, the cold weather, the hunger, the hardship of sleeping in the elements. All of it. From Sicily to the Italian mainland to France to Germany, Murphy tells it all in this riveting memoir. And think of this: on Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), May 8, 1945, Murphy still had not reached the age of 21. Read this as soon as you can.



A Worse Place Than Hell

A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John MattesonAs I mentioned earlier, Fredericksburg is one of the battlefields Kate and I visited in March. My advice to you: visit the battlefield and then read this book. But if you can’t visit, read the book anyway! Matteson uses Fredericksburg as the lens through which to view five people who change dramatically, which leads to profound changes in the country’s law, literature, politics, and popular mythology. The five are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, chaplain Arthur Fuller, and Confederate artillery expert John Pelham. All five were part of the Fredericksburg experience, and the story Matteson weaves is as compelling as anything I’ve read in a long time. This is NOT a ‘battle and tactics” book (although Matteson gives us enough to set the scene), but rather, a broad look at how these critical three months tested the five individuals whose lives reflect the soul of a nation.




Munich: The Edge of War, by Robert Harris — I love the way Robert Harris writes, and in this book (the first of my fiction recommendations), he outdoes himself. This novel takes us back to the famous Munich conference of 1938 when gullible British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visits Munich to meet with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a desperate attempt to avoid a major war. This would forever be known in history as the “appeasement conference” in which Chamberlain returns and assures his countrymen that Hitler has no intention of full-scale war. Harris tells the story through the eyes of two main characters: an aide for Chamberlain and an aide for Hitler. I won’t say anymore, except to say Harris’s research is excellent, and the story he has woven is better still. A great summer read!



The Murder of Willie Lincoln, by Burt SolomonPresident Murder of Willie LincolnAbraham Lincoln is crushed when his 11-year-old son, Willie, dies in the White House of typhoid fever in early 1862. That statement is historically accurate. But what if Willie was murdered? That’s the premise offered by Burt Solomon, whose novel (my second fiction choice) will keep you up late reading. Lincoln asks one of his secretaries, John Hay, to conduct the investigation of his son’s death. Hay’s main character is compelling. The story takes a number of twists and turns, all within a very accurate historical setting. And I didn’t see the ending coming! (That’s all I can say!)



Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights, by Martin Dugard —Fast-moving and well-written, this book takes you from the German invasion of France in May 1940, through the Nazi occupation, to the liberation of the city in the summer of 1944. All the big players are part of this saga: Churchill, FDR, Patton, DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Rommel, and brave members of the French resistance who worked to sabotage the Germans at every turn and helped the D-Day invasion be a success. It’s a great story and well told!



The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe, by Greg Behrrman — I’ve had this book on my shelf for years (it was published in 2007), but didn’t get to it until a few weeks ago. I’m glad I did. Most of us know of the Marshall Plan at some level, but I certainly didn’t know its full story until I finished this book — how it came to be, the politics involved, the amazing American administrative and financial commitment, the European response, the players who made it successful. It’s an incredible story of one of the most effective foreign policy efforts in all of American history — the economic rebuilding of a decimated Europe after World War II — as Behrman says, a policy defined by “the very best of ideals.” 


Why Sinatra Matters, by Pete Hamill — And speaking of books that were written years ago, this gem was published in 1998. I read it shortly after its release, and then decided to read it again now. It is short, but powerful. It places the entire Sinatra experience into the context of music and American history, and Hamill tells the story beautifully (he’s a great writer). He explains that there are many facets to Frank Sinatra, some admirable, some not so much, but in the end, all that really matters is the man’s music — beautiful, energetic, mournful, and enduring. With his voice and his songs, Sinatra spoke to a generation — and then another and another — and is still speaking today. Make time in your schedule to read this book.


Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France, by Daniel C. Guiet with Timothy K. Smith — This book is a nice companion to Taking Paris. It tells the astonishing story of the author’s father, the lone American on a four-person team of allied secret agents dropped into Nazi-occupied France. They were a unit of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret service ordered by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.” Parachuted into France the day after D-Day, Guiet and his team organized, armed, and commanded an underground army of 10,000 French resistance fighters who wreaked havoc on the Germans and helped the Allied invasion to take hold and advance. The personal story — how Daniel Guiet brought this family secret to life — really gives this book its heart.