My academic background is history & science & that’s my favorite reading, but I like a well written book in any genre. I've been a bookseller for over 20 years, first at the Harvard Coop, then at Gibson's. I’m responsible for buying new adult titles from publishers and for our used-book section.
John's September 2014 pick
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein.
This is the 3rd book in Perlstein’s ongoing series (Before the Storm, Nixonland) on the rise of conservatism in America from the mid-Sixties on, and how it led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Here he takes us from the inauguration of Richard Nixon for his second term to the 1976 Republican convention that narrowly picked Gerald Ford over Reagan. Perlstein gives us an enthralling overview of a troubled time for American society – Watergate, the fall of Saigon & the fall of Nixon, Patty Hearst, cults, ‘stagflation’, gas shortages, illegal activities by the CIA – while also showing how a one-time New Deal Democrat & second tier Hollywood star became the Right’s successful standard bearer. With many echoes of today’s politics, this is an essential work to help understand how we got to where we are today.
John's April 2014 pick
Five Came Back by Mark Harris is the story of five leading Hollywood directors – John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens & John Huston – who volunteered to serve in World War II, giving up lavish lifestyles to do so. They tried to use their filmmaking talents to show & explain the war to the American people. Harris tells a fascinating story that is a wonderful mixture of Hollywood gossip, politics, military history, & the individual stories of the five. All were changed by their experiences witnessing combat & being separated from loved ones, and the movies they made postwar would reflect that. Most moving is the story of George Stevens, who filmed the liberation of Dachau & later struggled with what we would now call PTSD.
John's December 2013 pick
Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings
With the impending centennial of the start of the First World War, there have already been many books on the subject of the war’s beginnings, with more to come. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War is a fine one to start with. Max Hastings mostly sticks to military side of the disaster that befell Europe in 1914, and does his usual excellent job of telling the story. Like Rick Atkinson (Liberation Trilogy) he covers both the generals and the front line soldiers and civilians, using many quotes from primary sources to convey the experience of battle. He’s unsparing in his criticism of the leaders on both sides and debunks many myths.
John's October 2013 pick
With a cast of characters still famous – Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth – to the now obscure like Shipwreck Kelly and Philo T. Farnsworth, Bill Bryson does a wonderful job of portraying America in the summer of 1927. Here we have the beginnings of things we now take for granted, like transatlantic flight, talking movies, national radio broadcasts-even the culture of celebrity we live with today. Bryson tells it all in his usual wry manner, and creates a fascinating narrative. This is popular history at its best – one to try even if you don’t normally like history.
John's September 2013 pick
Scott Anderson tells the story of the First World War in the Middle East through the stories of four men – T.E. Lawrence (British), Curt Prufer (German), William Yale (American) & Aaron Aaronsohn (Palestinian Jew). Lawrence dominates the tale, of course, but all the men affect the events before & during the war that lead to the Arab Revolt and helped create the Middle East as we know it today. Anderson is a fine writer and gives us an exciting narrative. Essential reading for anyone interested in the Middle East or who wants to understand the real Lawrence as opposed to the legend.
John's November 2012 pick
The Caning: the Assault That Drove America to Civil War by Stephen Puleo
Many regard politics today as being uniquely uncivil. This book is a reminder that things could be much worse.
On May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally beaten by pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the US Senate. Stephen Puleo (author of Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919) does a fine job of narrating this incident (a key turning point on the path to Civil War) and its aftermath.
Do we need another history of World War II? The answer is yes, when it's as well written and engaging as this one. He gives a solid overview of battles, strategy, campaigns, etc. but the great strength of the book is the amount of attention Hastings gives to ordinary people's experience of the war.
John's December 2011 pick
A book to appeal to railroad buffs, graphic design & map geeks (like me) or anyone for whom dreaming of a trip is almost as pleasurable as the journey itself.
The author, Director of the British Museum, takes objects from throughout history to illuminate the evolution of human culture. From the sublime (Seated Buddha from Gandhara) to the mundane (the credit card), MacGregor uses these things to tell the story of mankind in a dramatically original way.
With over 2500 of the world's greatest works of art, this oversized (1000 pages, 19 x 14 inches) volume may be the most comprehensive history of art ever published. If the price gives you pause ($160 at Gibson's) consider what the cost would be to see all these masterpieces in person!