and now.. for something old

We often pay attention to the most recent – or most recently reviewed – books when we look for suggestions but latest isn’t always best.  Here is the history portion of The Guardian’s list of 100 best non-fiction books.


The Histories by Herodotus (c400 BC)
History begins with Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian war

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776)
The first modern historian of the Roman Empire went back to ancient sources to argue that moral decay made downfall inevitable

The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848)
A landmark study from the pre-eminent Whig historian

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt (1963)
Arendt’s reports on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and explores the psychological and sociological mechanisms of the Holocaust

The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963)
Thompson turned history on its head by focusing on the political agency of the people, whom most historians had treated as anonymous masses

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970)
A moving account of the treatment of Native Americans by the US government

Hard Times: an Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel (1970)
Terkel weaves oral accounts of the Great Depression into a powerful tapestry

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński (1982)
The great Polish reporter tells the story of the last Shah of Iran

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm (1994)
Hobsbawm charts the failure of capitalists and communists alike in this account of the 20th century

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Familes by Philip Gourevitch (1999)
Gourevitch captures the terror of the Rwandan massacre, and the failures of the international community

Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)
A magisterial account of the grand sweep of European history since 1945

OK – when it’s cold outside you find things to do that you might not in warmer times


Bagels and Books started a year ago in October and it just happens in the months when we aren’t all outside getting our vitamin D fix but it occurred to me to wonder how many books our discussions have touched on during this series.  So I did a rough count – not eliminating the ones that get mentioned multiple times because we really like them – and it was something over 700 titles.  So it’s hard to believe that we haven’t found something you would enjoy (you can check for yourself in the archives).  Want to swell the number?  Tell us what you are reading.  

What Can You Learn About History From a Single Author?

History can be approached from a number of angles.  Mark Kurlansky is an author who looks at it through very focused lenses.  A prolific writer for both children and adults, his best known titles are SALT and COD.  In a similar vein, he has written The Basque History of the World and his latest title is Ready for a Brand New Beat.

Image SALT: A World History – Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Today we take it for granted; however, as Mark Kurlansky so brilliantly relates in this world-encompassing book, salt-the only rock we eat-has shaped civilization from the very beginning. Its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of mankind.

Image The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation – Straddling a small corner of Spain and France in a land that is marked on no maps except their own, the Basques are a puzzling contradiction—they are Europe’s oldest nation without ever having been a country. No one has ever been able to determine their origins, and even the Basques’ language, Euskera—the most ancient in Europe—is related to none other on earth. For centuries, their influence has been felt in nearly every realm, from religion to sports to commerce. Even today, the Basques are enjoying what may be the most important cultural renaissance in their long existence.

 ImageCOD: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the WorldCod,Mark Kurlansky’s third work of nonfiction and winner of the 1999 James Beard Award, is the biography of a single species of fish, but it may as well be a world history with this humble fish as its recurring main character. Cod, it turns out, is the reason Europeans set sail across the Atlantic, and it is the only reason they could. What did the Vikings eat in icy Greenland and on the five expeditions to America recorded in the Icelandic sagas? Cod, frozen and dried in the frosty air, then broken into pieces and eaten like hardtack. What was the staple of the medieval diet? Cod again, sold salted by the Basques, an enigmatic people with a mysterious, unlimited supply of cod. As we make our way through the centuries of cod history, we also find a delicious legacy of recipes, and the tragic story of environmental failure, of depleted fishing stocks where once their numbers were legendary. In this lovely, thoughtful history, Mark Kurlansky ponders the question: Is the fish that changed the world forever changed by the world’s folly?

 ImageReady for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America – Told by the writer who is legendary for finding the big story in unlikely places, Ready for a Brand New Beat chronicles that extraordinary summer of 1964 and showcases the momentous role that a simple song about dancing played in history.

Recommended History Books of 2013 – remember that our definitions are pretty loose

So you checked the last entry and discovered that it was all fiction titles and you only read non-fiction.  I hear you…here’s the list for you.

Lawrence in Arabia Scott Anderson – A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in 20th century history – the Arab Revolt and the secret “great game” to control the Middle East

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Age of Journalism – Doris Kearns Goodwin – The gap between rich and poor has never been wider…legislative stalemate paralyzes the country…corporations resist federal regulations…spectacular mergers produce giant companies…the influence of money in politics deepens…bombs explode in crowded streets…small wars proliferate far from our shores…a dizzying array of inventions speeds the pace of daily life.  These unnervingly familiar headlines serve as the backdrop for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s highly anticipated The Bully Pulpit—a dynamic history of the first decade of the Progressive era, that tumultuous time when the nation was coming unseamed and reform was in the air.

ImageHumans of New York  – Brandon Stanton – With four hundred color photos, including exclusive portraits and all-new stories, Humans of New York is a stunning collection of images that showcases the outsized personalities of New York.

 One Summer: America, 1927 Bill Bryson  – … much, much … transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their epic Quest for Gold at 1936 Berlin OlympicsDaniel James Brown – Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

 Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarathReza Asian – From the internationally bestselling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New AmericaGeorge Packer – This book hums—with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion for those who are caught in the gears of America’s increasingly complicated (and increasingly poorly calibrated) financial machinery…The Unwinding contains many sweeping, wide-angle views of American life. Its portraits of Youngstown, Ohio; Tampa; Silicon Valley; Washington; and Wall Street are rich, complex and interlocking. Mr. Packer’s gifts are Steinbeckian in the best sense of that term…he’s written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.

 Five Days in Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink – Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink’s landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina – and her suspenseful portrayal of the quest for truth and justice

 Thank You for Your Service David Finkel – In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel has done something even more extraordinary. Once again, he has embedded with some of the men of the 2-16—but this time he has done it at home, here in the States, after their deployments have ended. He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments as they try to recover, and in doing so, he creates an indelible, essential portrait of what life after war is like—not just for these soldiers, but for their wives, widows, children, and friends, and for the professionals who are truly trying, and to a great degree failing, to undo the damage that has been done.

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy) by Rick Atkinson – It is the twentieth century’s unrivaled epic: at a staggering price, the United States and its allies liberated Europe and vanquished Hitler. In the first two volumes of his bestselling Liberation Trilogy, Rick Atkinson recounted how the American-led coalition fought through North Africa and Italy to the threshold of victory. Now, in The Guns at Last Light, he tells the most dramatic story of all—the titanic battle for Western Europe.

 The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible – Simon Winchester – For more than two centuries, E pluribus unum—”Out of many, one”—has been featured on America’s official government seals and stamped on its currency. But how did America become “one nation, indivisible”? Simon Winchester addresses these questions, bringing together the breathtaking achievements of those American pioneers who helped, with their multitudes of callings, to forge and unify the new nation, and who toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizens and the geography of the United States from its very beginnings

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War IIDenise Kiernan – an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.


Recent historical fiction titles from BookList (their top recommendations for 4/12 – 4/13)

Just in case you need inspiration

Top 10 Historical Fiction: 2013. 

Hooper, Brad (author). 

FEATURE. First published April 15, 2013 (Booklist).

From an intriguing new way of looking at WWII, to a masterful reconstruction of the court of Henry VIII, to an authentic depiction of Montana in 1960, these historical novels, the best Booklist has reviewed between April 15, 2012, and April 1, 2013, make exceptionally good time-transporters.

The Accursed. By Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062231703).   Oates brings her dark humor and extraordinary fluency in eroticism and violence to this effective novel—set in Princeton, New Jersey, in the early years of the twentieth century—about the devastating toll of repression and prejudice, sexism and class warfare.

The Bartender’s Tale. By Ivan Doig. Riverhead, $27.95 (9781594487354).   This coming-of-age drama, set in Montana in 1960 but often flashing back to the Depression, is involving and subtly portrayed.

Bring Up the Bodies. By Hilary Mantel. Holt, $28 (9780805090031).  The sequel to Wolf Hall (2009) takes the dramatic story of Thomas Cromwell, chief secretary to King Henry VIII, through the edge-of-your-seat events in the fall of Anne Boleyn, the monarch’s second and doomed consort.

Coup d’Etat. By Harry Turtledove. Del Rey, $28 (9780345524652).The author’s masterful presentation of an alternate WWII reaches its fourth volume with its quality undiminished.

The Dream of the Celt. By Mario Vargas Llosa. Tr. by Edith Grossman. Farrar, $28 (9780374143466).  An Irishman in the British diplomatic service in the immediate pre-WWI years—an actual historical figure—is the main character in the Peruvian Nobel laureate’s latest novel.

Heading out to Wonderful. By Robert Goolrick. Algonquin, $24.95 (9781565129238).  With understated delicacy, the author creates a mesmerizing gothic tale of a good man gone wrong in the post-WWII years.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. By Stephen L. Carter, Knopf, $26.95 (9780307272638).  Carter draws on historical documents and a vivid imagination to render a fascinating mix of murder mystery, political thriller, and courtroom drama.

In Sunlight and in Shadow. By Mark Helprin. Houghton, $28 (9780547819235).  In this prodigious saga of exalted romance in corrupt, post-WWII New York, the author creates a supremely gifted and principled hero.

Merivel: A Man of His Time. By Rose Tremain. Norton, $26.95 (9780393079579).  In this wonderful sequel to Restoration (1990), set 16 years later, Tremain’s lovingly flawed protagonist, Sir Robert Merivel, pens a second riveting memoir as King Charles II’s once glorious reign winds down.

The Testament of Mary. By Colm Tóibín. Scribner, $23 (9781451688382).  This stunning interpretation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is as beautiful in its presentation as it is provocative in its intention.



I know that there are people whose response to snow is to dash out and play in it.  I am not one of those people.  My response is a blanket and a book and – fortuitously – I have an historical novel that I am starting – The Good Lord Bird (the most basic meaning of the title appears to be an Ivory Billed Woodpecker) by James McBride.  It has gotten lots of attention this year with reviews like the one from the New York Times “McBride’s brilliant romp of a novel about {abolitionist James} Brown, narrated by a freed slave boy who passes as a girl.”  McBride’s first very successful book was a memoir/tribute to his mother, The Color of Water.  I am not far enough into this book to have an opinion yet but suspect it will provide an interesting discussion item.

So what are you reading?  or are you just out there with your snowshoes?