Friday, October 17, 2008

Popular History Books of 2008

"The only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know"
-Harry S. Truman

Between the economic crisis and the Iraq war you may feel as though we are going through the darkest, toughest time in history. History books help give us strength. They teach us how people overcame tough or bleak times. History books are also about human emotion, fear, pity, courage, loneliness, greed, affection and are a part of any good story. The following are the most popular history books so far this year.


Tyson Bolles

What Happened :;"inside the Bush White House and Washington's culture of deception"

Scott McClellan was one of a few Bush loyalists from Texas who became part of his inner circle of trusted advisers, and remained so during one of the most challenging and contentious periods of recent history. Drawn to Bush by his commitment to compassionate conservatism and strong bipartisan leadership, McClellan served the president for more than seven years, and witnessed day-to-day exactly how the presidency veered off course. In this refreshingly clear-eyed book, written with no agenda other than to record his experiences and insights for the benefit of history, McClellan provides unique perspective on what happened and why it happened the way it did, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, Washington's bitter partisanship, and two hotly contested presidential campaigns. He gives readers a candid look into who George W. Bush is and what he believes, and into the personalities, strengths, and liabilities of his top aides. Finally, McClellan looks to the future, exploring the lessons this presidency offers the American people as we prepare to elect a new leader.

Patriot Pirates :;"the privateer war for freedom and fortune in the American Revolution "

They were legalized pirates empowered by the Continental Congress to raid and plunder, at their own considerable risk, as much enemy trade as they could successfully haul back to America’s shores; they played a central role in American’s struggle for independence and later turned their seafaring talents to the slave trade; embodying the conflict between enterprise and morality central to the American psyche. InPatriot Pirates, Robert H. Patton, grandson of the battlefield genius of World War II, writes that during America’s Revolutionary War, what began in 1775 as a New England fad--converting civilian vessels to fast-sailing warships, and defying the Royal Navy’s overwhelming firepower to snatch its merchant shipping--became a massive seaborne insurgency that ravaged the British economy and helped to win America’s independence. More than two thousand privately owned warships were commissioned by Congress to prey on enemy transports, seize them by force, and sell the cargoes for prize money to be divided among the privateer’s officers, crewmen, and owners. Patton writes how privateering engaged all levels of Revolutionary life, from the dockyards to the assembly halls; how it gave rise to an often cutthroat network of agents who sold captured goods and sparked wild speculation in purchased shares in privateer ventures, enabling sailors to make more money in a month than they might otherwise earn in a year. As one naval historian has observed, “The great battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, but independence was won at sea.” Benjamin Franklin, then serving at his diplomatic post in Paris, secretly encouraged the sale of captured goods in France, a calculated violation of neutrality agreements between France and Britain, in the hopes that the two countries would come to blows and help take the pressure off American fighters. Patton writes about those whose aggressive speculation in privateering promoted the war effort: Robert Morris--a financier of the Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress who helped to fund George Washington’s army, later tried (and acquitted) for corruption when his deals with foreign merchants and privateers came to light, and emerged from the war as one of America’s wealthiest men . . . William Bingham… John R. Livingston--scion of a well-connected New York family who made no apologies for exploiting the war for profit, calling it “a means of making my fortune.” He worried that peace would break out too soon. (“If it takes place without a proper warning,” said Livingston, “it may ruin us.”) Vast fortunes made through privateering survive to this day, among them those of the Peabodys, Cabots, and Lowell's of Massachusetts, and the Derbys and Browns of Rhode Island. A revelation of America’s War of Independence, a sweeping tale of maritime rebel-entrepreneurs bent on personal profit as well as national freedom.

Normandy :;"the landings to the liberation of Paris "

The Allied landings on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, have
assumed legendary status in the annals of World War II. But in overly
romanticizing D-day, Olivier Wieviorka argues, we have lost sight of
the full picture. Normandy offers a balanced, complete account that
reveals the successes and weaknesses of the titanic enterprise. In
addition to describing the landings with precision and drama,
Wieviorka covers the planning and diplomatic background, Allied
relationships, German defensive preparations, morale of the armies,
economics and logistics, political and military leaders, and civiliansrsquo;
and soldiersrsquo; experience of the fighting. Surprisingly, the
landing itself was not the slaughter the general staff expected. The
greater battle for Normandy-waged on farmland whose infamous
hedgerows, the bocage, created formidable obstacles-took a severe
toll not only in lives lost, but on the survivors who experienced this
grueling ordeal. D-day, Wieviorka notes, was a striking
accomplishment, but it was war, violent and cruel. Errors, desertions,
rivalries, psychological trauma, self-serving motives, thefts, and rapes
were all part of the story. Rather than diminishing the Allied
achievement, this candid book underscores the price of victory and
acknowledges the British, American, and Canadian soldiers who
dashed onto the Normandy beaches not as demigods, but as young men.

1434 :;
"the year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance "

The New York Times bestselling author of 1421 offers another stunning
reappraisal of history, presenting compelling new evidence that traces
the roots of the European Renaissance to Chinese exploration in the
fifteenth century The brilliance of the Renaissance laid the foundation
of the modern world. Textbooks tell us that it came about as a result
of a rediscovery of the ideas and ideals of classical Greece and Rome.
But now bestselling historian Gavin Menzies makes the startling
argument that in the year 1434, China-then the world's most
technologically advanced civilization-provided the spark that set the
European Renaissance ablaze. From that date onward, Europeans
embraced Chinese intellectual ideas, discoveries, and inventions, all
of which form the basis of western civilization today. Florence and
Venice of the early fifteenth century were hubs of world trade,
attracting traders from across the globe. Based on years of research,
this marvelous history argues that a Chinese fleet-official ambassadors
of the emperor-arrived in Tuscany in 1434, where they were received
by Pope Eugenius IV in Florence. The delegation presented the
influential pope with a wealth of Chinese learning from a diverse range
of fields: art, geography (including world maps that were passed on to
Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan), astronomy,
mathematics, printing, architecture, steel manufacturing,
military weaponry, and more. This vast treasure trove of knowledge
spread across Europe, igniting the legendary inventiveness of the
Renaissance, including the work of such geniuses as da Vinci,
Copernicus, Galileo, and more. In 1434, Gavin Menzies combines
this long-overdue historical reexamination with the excitement of
an Investigative adventure. He brings the reader aboard the
remarkable Chinese fleet as it sails from China to Cairo and
Florence, and then back across the world. Erudite and brilliantly
reasoned, 1434 will change the way we see ourselves, our
history, and our world.

The G
reat Derangement :;"a terrifying true story of war, politics, and religion at the twilight of the American Empire"

Rolling Stone’sMatt Taibbi set out to describe the nature of George Bush’s
America in the post-9/11 era and ended up vomiting demons in an
evangelical church in Texas, riding the streets of Baghdad in an American
convoy to nowhere, searching for phantom fighter jets in Congress, and
falling into the rabbit hole of the 9/11 Truth Movement. Matt discovered
in his travels across the country that the resilient blue state/red state
narrative of American politics had become irrelevant. A large and growing
chunk of the American population was so turned off—or radicalized—by
electoral chicanery, a spineless news media, and the increasingly blatant
lies from our leaders (“they hate us for our freedom”) that they abandoned
the political mainstream altogether. They joined what he calls The Great
Derangement. Taibbi tells the story of this new American madness by
inserting himself into four defining American subcultures:The Military,
where he finds himself mired in the grotesque black comedy of the American
occupation of Iraq;The System, where he follows the money-slicked path
of legislation in Congress;The Resistance, where he doubles as chief public
antagonist and undercover member of the passionately bonkers 9/11 Truth
Movement; andThe Church, where he infiltrates a politically influential
apocalyptic mega-ministry in Texas and enters the lives of its desperate
congregants. Together these four interwoven adventures paint a portrait
of a nation dangerously out of touch with reality and desperately searching
for answers in all the wrong places. Funny, smart, and a little bit
heartbreaking,The Great Derangementis an audaciously reported, sobering,
and illuminating portrait of America at the end of the Bush era.

barians to Angels :;"the Dark Ages reconsidered "
A surprising look at the least-appreciated yet profoundly important period
of European history: the so-called Dark Ages.The barbarians who destroyed
the glory that was Rome demolished civilization along with it, and for the
next four centuries the peasants and artisans of Europe barely held on.
Random violence, mass migration, disease, and starvation were the only
way of life. This is the picture of the Dark Ages that most historians promote.
But archaeology tells a different story. Peter S. Wells, one of the world’s
leading archaeologists, surveys the archaeological record to demonstrate
that the Dark Ages were not dark at all. The kingdoms of Christendom that
emerged starting in the ninth century sprang from a robust, previously
little-known, European culture, albeit one that left behind few written texts.
This recently recognized culture achieved heights in artistry, technology,
craft production, commerce, and learning. Future assessments of the
period between Rome and Charlemagne will need to incorporate this fresh
new picture.

Empires of the Sea :;"the siege of Malta, the battle of Lepanto, and the contest for the center of the world"

In 1521, Suleiman the Magnificent, Muslim ruler of the Ottoman Empire
at the height of its power, dispatched an invasion fleet to the Christian
island of Rhodes. This would prove to be the opening shot in an epic
struggle between rival empires and faiths for control of the Mediterranean
and the center of the world. InEmpires of the Sea,acclaimed historian
Roger Crowley has written his most mesmerizing work to date–a
thrilling account of this brutal decades-long battle between Christendom
and Islam for the soul of Europe, a fast-paced tale of spiraling intensity
that ranges from Istanbul to the Gates of Gibraltar and features a cast
of extraordinary characters: Barbarossa, “The King of Evil,” the pirate
who terrified Europe; the risk-taking Emperor Charles V; the Knights
of St. John, the last crusading order after the passing of the Templars;
the messianic Pope Pius V; and the brilliant Christian admiral Don Juan
of Austria. This struggle’s brutal climax came between 1565 and 1571,
seven years that witnessed a fight to the finish decided in a series of
bloody set pieces: the epic siege of Malta, in which a tiny band of
Christian defenders defied the might of the Ottoman army; the savage
battle for Cyprus; and the apocalyptic last-ditch defense of southern
Europe at Lepanto–one of the single most shocking days in world history.
At the close of this cataclysmic naval encounter, the carnage was so
great that the victors could barely sail away “because of the countless
corpses floating in the sea.” Lepanto fixed the frontiers of the Mediterranean
world that we know today. Roger Crowley conjures up a wild cast of
pirates, crusaders, and religious warriors struggling for supremacy and
survival in a tale of slavery and galley warfare, desperate bravery and utter
brutality, technology and Inca gold.Empires of the Seais page-turning
narrative history at its best–a story of extraordinary color and incident,
rich in detail, full of surprises, and backed by a wealth of eyewitness
accounts. It provides a crucial context for our own clash of civilizations.

1 comment:

geoffwade said...

Dear Wellesley Reference,
You would do your readers a greater service if you did more than simply reprint the publishers' blurbs for books. The book 1434 you include in your list of "popular history" would be better classified as "fiction" or "wannabe history".

Mr Menzies' book has all manner of claims but not one piece of evidence to suggest a Chinese fleet reached Italy in 1434. The Chinese accounts he claims are references to Italy are in fact references to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). History written on the basis of no evidence is in fact fiction.

Like the first book 1421, this work is intended to milk the public -- Deceiving the public for private gain with no conscience about what harm this may do to readers, young and old. It is not for no reason that the author is referred to as a charlatan.

For critiques fo the earlier hoax, see

best wishes

Geoff Wade