New history books (January 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Politics, War by Alex L. on February 2, 2012

History Off the Book

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

War of 1812

Knights-of-the-SeaThis year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Many overlook this conflict, but it inaugurated important changes for America. During the war, America tried unsuccessfully to invade Canada, Washington D.C. was invaded and burned by the British, American Indian unification efforts (which were supported by the British) against the colonists were dealt a punishing blow, and the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner” were composed. After the war, British and American relations began to improve until eventually the two nations became each other’s closest ally in the 20th Century.

Several new books are being published in commemoration of the anniversary. Three that were released last year—two popular ones by George C. Daughan and Stephen Budiansky and a more scholarly one by Kevin D. McCranie—focus on the naval conflict. But the best new overview of the War of 1812 is by J.C.A. Stagg and is due to come out on March 31 of this year.

The book I’m most excited to read, though, is David Hanna’s Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812. The ships HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise dueled off the coast of Maine on a brisk autumn day. The captains of the opposing vessels were later buried together in a dual funeral on the American shore, inspiring the poem “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The author, Hanna, grew up within view of where the battle once took place. Unlike most historians, who are either journalists or academics by training, Hanna is a high school teacher. His book also seems to branch out to reconsider afresh the causes of the war. Hanna’s personal connection to his subject, unique background, and scholarly approach to the War of 1812 should make for a stimulating read.

Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence. Hugh Howard. The War of 1812 from the perspective of the President (and First Lady) that witnessed the burning of nation’s capital.

Illinois in the War of 1812. Gillum Ferguson. Two centuries ago, Indians and British soldiers fought it out with American colonists over control of Illinois. Fort Dearborn was a battleground in this forgotten conflict.

Current events

Rule-and-RuinBill Clinton and George Bush Sr., viciously critical of one another in the ‘90s, now chummily cooperate to raise money for international charities. Why is it that politicians from different parties only work together after they’re out of office? Whatever the reason, journalist Philip Taubman has published a new book that elucidates a lesser known bipartisan partnership dedicated to the common good: two Republicans (including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), two Democrats (including former Secretary of Defense William Perry), and a scientist who have devoted the twilight of their careers to banish nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. This story deserves to be heard because, since the Cold War ended, the public and media generally choose to repress thoughts about the nuclear threat.

For as long as I have been interested in politics, the Republican Party has astounded and repulsed me, and I know I’m not the only conservative who feels this way. That’s why I can hardly wait to read Geoffrey Kabaservice’s new book, titled Rule and Ruin: The Downfall and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Kabaservice describes how the party once dedicated to smart government, limited foreign wars, and civic responsibility became a small-minded creature addicted to the unsavory gruel dished out by corporations and fundamentalist Christians. Even Ron Paul, who most closely resembles a traditional conservative, brandishes his own brand of the party’s signature devotion to ideological purity. Kabaservice’s new book seems like an excellent resource to understand what has happened to the GOP.

The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. Michael Hastings. The journalist whose Rolling Stone article prompted the dismissal of a top general examines the shadowy side of war.

Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror. Mattew M. Aid. Ten years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, Aid evaluates the improvements and weaknesses of the American intelligence community since 9/11.

All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Paula Broadwell. The first real biography about the counterinsurgency expert focuses on his efforts in Afghanistan after his successful campaigns in Iraq.

Race in America

FraternityEver since reading The Metaphysical Club by Paul Menand, I have favored history books that narrate the story of a small but influential group of individuals as a vehicle for raising broader issues and arguments. This style adds momentum to the narrative by getting the reader involved in the collective struggles of the group as well as the fate of each individual.

Diane Brady has published a new book in this style with an interesting team of characters. It’s called Fraternity: In 1968, a visionary priest recruited 20 black men to the College of the Holy Cross and changed their lives and the course of history. Reverend John Brooks, a white professor of theology at the college, would become a lifelong mentor to these men. Those 20 students would go on to become a Supreme Court justice (Clarence Thomas), a Pulitzer Prize winner in literature (Edward P. Jones), an NFL player (Eddie Jenkins), and successful leaders in business and law. This book provides a powerful example of what one teacher who sticks his neck out for his students can do to help propel them forward on life’s path.

Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority. Tim Wise. Wise claims that whites should become an ally of America’s increasingly multicultural society (instead of rebelling against it like the Tea Party movement).

A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Jennings was a slave for the Madisons who wrote his memoirs–a unique look at the time of the War of 1812–after being emancipated.

Notable mentions

Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor. Ben Hellwarth. While astronauts travelled to outer space in the 1960s, Navy divers were less publicly pioneering a project to explore the ocean depths.

A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948. James Barr. Organizing new research into an appealing narrative, Barr examines the origins of today’s conflicts in the Middle East.

Heinrich Himmler: A Life. Peter Longerich. This is the first comprehensive biography of one of history’s most savage men. Himmler, a down-and-out chicken farmer after WWI, rose to power as a leader of Nazi street thugs.

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. Norman Davies. Ever heard of the kingdoms of Alt Clud, Etruria, Rosenau, or Tsernagora? This book tells the story of one-time nations left out of most history books.

Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age. Hendrik Hartog. This book invites contemplation about, as one reviewer put it, “the enduring dilemma in mixing love and economic need.”

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