Best histories and biographies read during 2015
First post in a good while. Been busy polishing up my manuscript, The Girl in the Iron Box: Tucson’s 1934 June Robles Kidnapping, & the Myth of J. Edgar Hoover’s Infallible FBI, and sending it off to a publisher for consideration. More on this in a future post.
Here is my annual list of best biographies and histories read during the previous year. As in recent years, I have been reconnecting with aspects of European (including Beatles!) history that held my interest prior to my own turn to writing Southwest Borderlands history.
- Winston S. Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, Vol III: 1705-1708. This 4-volume biography, certainly Churchill’s finest work of history (rather than memoir), just keeps getting better and better. Winston’s ancestor, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, was condemned to live in interesting times, never more so than during the years covered by Volume III. Arguably England’s greatest general ever, he scored several impressive victories in the War of the Spanish Succession over the previously unbeatable armies of the Sun King, Louis XIV, all the while having to fend off the undermining efforts of Great Britain’s Dutch, Austrian, Prussian, and other allies. At the same time, he was forced to fight a losing battle with both Tory and Whig politicians for influence with Queen Anne, the monarch whose prestige his victories raised high, but whose growing hatred of Marlborough’s wife, Sarah, probably did most to impel Anne to throw the Duke, her greatest and most loyal subject, under whatever passed for an 18th century bus. Churchill, a soldier by training and experience, a politician who held virtually every British cabinet post except Prime Minister before World War II, and a writer by profession, applied every one of these talents to bringing the personality-driven world of late-Stuart politics and war to life. His writing style is a wonderful mix of Victorian perceptions, psychological insights based on practical experience, and conversational tone, as if you the reader were held spellbound in his home at Chartwell as he held court for hours over brandy and cigars. One and two volume abridgments of the 4 volume work are widely available for those who do not have the time to read the complete bio.
- Lynne Olson’s Troublesome Young Men (2007) succeeds in rewriting history by convincingly explaining how Winston Churchill came to the prime ministership of the UK just in time to save his nation, and indeed the West, from the previously unstoppable scourge of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. And what happened is not what you thought. Most histories leave the impression that everyone simply realized at the critical moment that Churchill was the only man for the job. He was, but it was the courageous, unappreciated, and until now unrecognized work of a very few Tories, such as Harold MacMillan, who risked their careers to oppose, and, with virtually no help from Churchill, overthrow Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain’s government just as Hitler turned his Panzers on France, the Low Countries, and the British army. Without the Troublesome Young Men, the U.K. of Chamberlain and Halifax would have negotiated a settlement with Hitler, condemning all of Europe to tyranny and the U.S. to an uncertain future. No future book on the approach of the Second World War or its conduct or outcome should ever ignore Olson’s research or findings.
- Bonaparte: 1769-1802 (English translation, 2015), the first of two volumes by French historian Patrice Gueniffey, is a different take on Napoleon than the one-volume bio by Andrew Roberts that made my list last year. Much less of a military biography, Gueniffey’s book is an extended essay that more fully places Bonaparte within the political upheaval of the Revolution. He demonstrates how the young Corsican, despite some mistakes (notably during his coup of Brumaire), ran rings around the ideologues, rival generals, and venal politicians who comprised France’s revolving door revolutionary governments, and himself learned to govern above party in Italy and Egypt. No one else could have reconciled France’s monarchical past and its bloody revolution with a vision of a progressive future. How that reconciliation came at the price of subservience to one man’s will and a future of endless war is also part of the story.
- While Beatles fans patiently wait years for the 2nd volume of Mark Lewisohn’s All These Years trilogy (presumably to cover 1963-1966) we can slide ahead to the 1970s and beyond, thanks to Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup (2010). Doggett does not attempt a definitive biography of the post-Fab Four, but focuses on the endless fights over control of the Beatles finances, the lingering mutual hurts caused by their years of entrapment inside a bubble only they fully experienced without coming to grips with, and the many failed efforts by one Beatle or another to record together again. While every Beatle at some point expressed willingness to get back together on some sort of project, they never agreed at the same time. The head games the Beatles played with one another throughout the 1970s were mind-numbing in their repetitiveness and sometimes abject silliness. John Lennon may have been the worst one when it came to leading the others toward reconciliation and then sabotaging hope, but all four of them did the same in some way to some degree. Had John not been murdered in 1980, it seems likely that they eventually would have grown up, reasoned through their differences, and been able to create some work of value, much as the Eagles learned to do in recent years before Glenn Frey’s death. But maybe not. In any case, this is a marvelous book about missed opportunity and the thin line between love and hate.
- I’ve now read four books by Cornell history professor Barry Strauss, and The Death of Caesar (2015) is perhaps the most eye-opening of them. Whether we first came to the Ides of March by way of Shakespeare, Suetonius, Plutarch, or the reliable histories and biographies written in modern times, we invariably came away with the understanding that Caesar’s friend Brutus and the ambitious, coat-changing Cassius were the dual wellspring behind the dictator’s assassination. Strauss makes a convincing case that the key man was one who is relatively forgotten in most accounts, Caesar’s even closer friend and longtime lieutenant, Decimus Brutus. Strauss renders a thrilling, almost hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute account of the conspiracy, one that might have come undone at several points. We know how it ends, but it might well have gone another way, with incalculable results for Rome and western civilization. The most surprising read of 2015.