Posts Tagged ‘history’

My Ten Favorite Books of 2011

I finished a Baker’s Cannonball (that’s fifty-three books) for CBR-III, but I only really finished forty-eight in 2011. But that’s plenty of books from which to choose a Top Ten.

10. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
y: the last man

This is actually a graphic novel series in ten volumes, and not a single book. But it’s a graphic novel, so it’s a quick and fun read. The premise of the story is that a mysterious plague has caused every male organism on Earth to die: except for Yorick Brown, an aspiring escape artist, and his helper monkey, Ampersand. It explores a lot of gender issues, but does so in a witty and interesting way. There are plenty of meta references and jokes, and a few parts even made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.

But this is a graphic novel series for grown-ups, and not a comic book for kids, so be forewarned that there are some squicky parts that prudes like me don’t appreciate, including some nudity.

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
things fall apart

Culture changes with every generation. The dominant people of one generation can quickly become obsolete and shunned by the next. Things Fall Apart explores what happens when someone cannot let go of the past in order to adapt to the future. Okonkwo, the most powerful man in a remote Nigerian village, is unable to change as the times do, with tragic consequences. This book is a quick read, but a heavy one.

8. John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray
john macarthur: servant of the word and flock

Iain Murray is, in my opinion, one of the finest biographers of our day, and certainly the foremost Christian biographer of our generation. His proto-biography of John MacArthur is a brief but encouraging look at the life of one of my spiritual heroes. Murray himself reminds the reader that a full biography can’t really be finished until the subject’s life and testimony are complete, but this is a great glimpse at what that full testimony will look like when it’s ready to be written.

I can only wonder who will write Murray’s biography when he is gone.

7. John Adams by David McCullough
john adams

John Adams is an historical figure who doesn’t get much play time in the American classrooms of today. But he’s certainly one of the most important patriots who ever lived, and historian David McCullough brings him to life in the pages of this book. Adams was a man of deep integrity and passion, and I appreciate that McCullough chooses to write about men of character instead of those who lived more glamorous and superficially exciting lives.

6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
high fidelity

This is a book that will speak to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and pined after someone they couldn’t have. Hornby has a knack for writing about common human experiences with a humor and with that makes them seem somehow glorious because of how pitiful they are. Rob Fleming is everyman, and laughing at his romantic misadventures helps you to laugh at your own.

5. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
the hiding place

One of the few books I re-read in 2011, I was surprised at how much richer this book was for me upon re-reading it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate God’s love and care for His children since I first read it back in high school, but I was very personally encouraged by this book, and the testimony of Corrie ten Boom’s life, especially in how God used her time in a German concentration camp during WWII to teach her more about His power, grace, and love. This is a book that I’ll keep in my heart for the rest of my life.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
extremely loud and incredibly close

I hear that the movie version of this book is retaaaaahded, but don’t let that stop you from reading this beautiful, tragic, poignant book. One of the first novels to be set against the backdrop of 9/11, it came under some fire for being “manipulative” because of its setting. But I think time has been kind to it, and I found the story of young Oskar Schell’s search for a way to make sense out of life after losing his father in the 9/11 attacks to be profoundly moving.

3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
black swan green

What High Fidelity is for relationships, Black Swan Green is for growing up. Jason Taylor is unpopular, unconfident, and uncomfortable. His parents are on the verge of splitting up, the girl he fancies fancies the class bully, and, to make matters worse, he has a stammer that makes King George VI look like Cicero. He’s the Rob Fleming of junior high, and David Mitchell writes this semi-autobiographical character with honesty, compassion, and feeling. It’ll make you look back on the miserable memories of junior-high awkwardness (if you have them. I have them in abundance) with fondness — not because they weren’t really miserable, but because that misery shaped you into the person you are today.

2. Native Son by Richard Wright
native son

Native Son may well be one of the most important works of American literature. It’s well-written, thought-provoking, and harrowing. It tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, a black man ironically forced into a terrible situation by the kindness of people in a class oppressing his own. Part of me wants to say it’s a sad story, but it’s also a very cold story. Wright himself described it best when he said of its creation, “I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

1. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller
prodigal god

I guess you could accuse me of copping out because I put a Christian book at the top of my list. But while this book may not change the world at large, it certainly changed my life, and my view of God’s love and grace. We’ve all heard the story of the prodigal son, and we think that the word “prodigal” means “lost” or “wayward.” But what it really means is “wastefully extravagant,” and Keller posits that the real prodigal in this story is the Father, who lavishes his love and riches on a son that doesn’t deserve it. I can’t even write about this book without being moved to tears because I know that God has given me so much more than I could ever hope to deserve. Because of His prodigal love, all the riches of heaven are mine, and there’s not a thing I can do to lose it or earn more of it. This book is a must-read for Christians who want to glimpse into the depths of God’s love for them.


What were your favorite books of 2011?


Cannonball 52: 1776 by David McCullough

17761776 by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a wonder that America exists at all.

When you consider how outmanned, outgunned, and outstrategized these thirteen upstart colonies were when they declared war on England for their independence, it’s scary to think how close this country came to missing its birth.

David McCullough is one of my very favorite biographers, and his 1776 is a gripping, exciting read about how the United States of America united its states and became America.

He describes in detail the gritty battles, the hardships faced on both sides, and both the strategic decisions and happy accidents that won the war.

One of the things I really appreciate about McCullough is that he doesn’t limit himself to reciting facts. He’s telling a story. It’s a true story, but he interprets the facts in a way that helps you to see what Washington was probably thinking when he received this dispatch or that letter. He’s not only telling the story of the Revolutionary War, but of the people who fought it. He really brings history to life on the page.

I still like his biographies the most; McCullough’s at his best when he immerses himself in a person’s life. But his telling of the story of the birth of our nation is a must-read for history buffs and patriots.

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Cannonball 41: John Adams by David McCullough

John AdamsJohn Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no secret that I loves me some David McCullough. He’s like the Iain Murray of American history.

McCullough takes a lot of flak in some circles because of his narrative writing style, but as a nonacademic history buff (well, as nonacademic as a history buff can get), I appreciate that he’s not just reciting historical facts to his reader. He’s painting a picture of a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

And John Adams was a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

Adams was a simple farmer with strong convictions about the land where he lived. He believed that he and his fellow colonists ought to be free to pursue a fair living without being bossed around by a king who lived thousands of miles away. He got pulled into politics for the sake of this budding nation, and he served her faithfully, and often without thanks.

He was a man of integrity who was loathe to fight fire with fire when he was attacked, even when people were spreading untrue rumors about him.

abigail adams

Abigail Adams

He shared a remarkable marriage with a remarkable woman. He and his wife Abigail were apart more than they were together for much of their marriage. Adams often traveled abroad as an ambassador to continental European nations, trying to garner support for the budding American nation.

McCullough clearly did his homework. He read tons of letters and documents so that he not only knew what the historical facts were, but also so that he could imagine what Adams must have felt at certain points in his life. McCullough has a rare gift for sympathy that he uses to really get into the lives, heads, and hearts of these historical figures.

I really appreciate that McCullough chooses noble subjects to write about. He could’ve chosen to write about the life of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. These two were more popular figures at the time, both a magnetic personality and commanding presence. Instead, McCullough chose John Adams, whose opponents mockingly called him “His Rotundity.” He wasn’t dashing or charismatic, but he had integrity. He didn’t own slaves, and he extrapolated the value of freedom to all men, not just to those who were like him. He chose a man of virtue to write about and immortalize, and I respect him more for it.

John Adams was well-written, compelling, and a great in-depth look at the life of a simple man whose country demanded more of him. He was a rare man, and his story inspires courage and duty.

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Cannonball 30: Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen Ambrose

Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full disclosure: I watched the miniseries before I read the book. And maybe that’s a good thing, since I wasn’t picking at the miniseries, comparing it to the book.

As far as I could tell, the miniseries was a pretty faithful adaptation. But I digress. I come to discuss the book, not the miniseries.

The book follows a company of paratroopers through their experiences in Europe during World War II, from their basic training to their drop into Normandy on D-Day through the end of the war. The author follows a few of these men with particular care, and his telling of their personal war stories adds a human element to the historical accounts.

What makes Band of Brothers such a remarkable book is that the stories are true. Men really fought with this sort of bravery. They really endured these harsh, unbearable conditions. These men from all over the United States were largely ordinary, blue-collar men, but they fought with extraordinary courage.

Stephen Ambrose spent years gathering all of the information for this book. He got to know many of the men he wrote about, and heard these stories from their own lips. Despite receiving conflicting accounts regarding certain events (which he discloses), he writes about them as faithfully as he can.

Ambrose writes directly; his language isn’t too flowery, which is appropriate, considering the horror of war. He matter-of-factly describes the grim realities of war and, in doing so, echoes the matter-of-factness that many veterans show when they describe their experiences in the trenches. They don’t see that they’ve done anything particularly heroic. They simply fought hard because it was the right thing to do.

This book is a rare achievement. Kudos to Stephen Ambrose for capturing the remarkable story of Easy Company for generations of Americans to read, enjoy, and remember.

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Cannonball 15: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve never been to Chicago.

I’ve heard so much about it: its museums, its history, and especially the food. I’ve always wanted to go.

After reading Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 World’s Fair, my interest in Chicago’s history is slowly gaining on my obsession with the food scene there.

Larson’s book explores the events surrounding 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition. The author fastidiously chronicles architect Daniel Burnham’s arduous task of creating the White City: a confluence of the day’s finest architecture, art, culture, and innovations — the best America (and the world) had to offer all in one convenient location.

He also guides the reader down a twisted path branching off from the main road: how serial killer H.H. Holmes (the eponymous “Devil” of the book) capitalized on the World’s Fair by luring victims to his infamous “Murder Castle” with low rates and his charismatic charm.

The book is nothing if not fascinating — Larson’s subject matter serves him well here. The obstacles Burnham and his colleagues had to surmount in order to make this Fair happen were staggering. The inventions that debuted at the Fair are fascinating (e.g. the Ferris Wheel. And did you know that the US runs on alternating current because Westinghouse submitted a lower bid to power the Fair based on AC? So interesting).

And the lurid details of Holmes’ escapades are gripping as well. I have a morbid fascination with serial killers (what drives someone to repeatedly commit the most heinous act possible?), and Larson’s account of Holmes’ “work” did not disappoint.

However, the book did suffer from the constant change of pace as Larson switched from story to story. Add in a tertiary subplot (the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison) and you’ve got a trifecta of interesting storylines that have little in common aside from their setting.

The Devil in the White City was an ambitious project for any author to tackle. Larson did the best with his source material, but I can’t help but to wish that he’d decided to write three books instead of one.

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I made it, Ma!

Imagine my surprise when I opened my Google Reader yesterday to find that my favorite Cannonball Read so far got the royal treatment: it’s an official review on Pajiba!!!

Now, there's a sight for sore eyes.

Thanks, Abe. I owe it all to you.

This is so exciting! I mean, I didn’t expect it to happen so fast!

Also: SQUEE!!!!

That is all.

Read the original review.

Read the review on Pajiba.

Cannonball 7: Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I finished this book a few days ago, but I couldn’t write the review without crying until now.

Team of Rivals deals primarily with Abraham Lincoln’s political savvy. He went from a hayseedlawyer on the fringes of the American consciousness to one of the greatest and most respected leaders in our nation’s history — in world history, even.

The book is about Lincoln’s shrewd leadership, but its heart is about his character. Lincoln was a political genius, yes, but it was his integrity and humility that strengthened him to stick to his political convictions. It was his knack for giving humorous illustrations to set his adjutants, friends, colleagues, and even his enemies at ease that earned the respect of the American people in the most difficult trial our nation has ever faced.

Goodwin carefully details the background of each member of Lincoln’s Cabinet. She doesn’t just set forth the facts of their biographies — she paints a picture of each man’s character and personality. She brings them to life the way only a truly gifted historian can.

She also gives the reader a feel for the zeitgeist of the era. We Americans have all studied the American Civil War in school. But textbooks and lectures can’t convey the emotional state of a nation in peril. She gives examples of Americans from many different walks of life — North and South, slave and free, rich and poor — to show a broad view of how the war affected every American. No one came through unscathed.

And of course Goodwin describes Lincoln’s own life and character in careful detail. What makes the book so powerful is Goodwin’s ability to take a subject of thousands of biographies and bring him to life afresh. The reader learns about Lincoln’s agony over the personal cost of the war to each American — Northern and Southern alike. We see his level-headedness in handling delicate situations involving indelicate men. We see the strength of his conviction as he graciously but firmly led his Cabinet while still humbly considering their counsel in every matter.

We see why the nation was so devastated by his assassination. To lose their leader at the end of its most difficult trial must have been a terrible blow to a nation already weakened by war. It’s a credit to Goodwin’s writing that we feel the grief of the nation as we read her account of Lincoln’s assassination and the aftermath. I wept as though I had lost a personal friend.

But, aside from Lincoln’s wife and sons, no one felt the loss quite as deeply as his Cabinet — the eponymous “team of rivals” that he assembled to give him a balanced council to advise him.

Secretary of State William Seward was nearly assassinated himself, and had to cope with his own recuperation as well as the loss of his friend, colleague, and President. Seward had bid for the Republican nomination in 1960, but lost out to Lincoln. After much hesitation and political maneuvering on Lincoln’s part, he finally reluctantly accepted the post of Secretary of War. He was the first member of Lincoln’s Cabinet to recognize the President’s genius. He was Lincoln’s most trusted friend.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton couldn’t say the President’s name without weeping for weeks after his death. He had his fair share of conflicts with the President — when they first met, he was called in to handle a case that was originally given to Lincoln. No one ever told Lincoln he’d been replaced, so he showed up to court. Stanton ignored his presence and proceeded to present the case. Afterward, Lincoln admiringly said that he needed to go home to learn how to become a lawyer. Stanton rather brusquely dismissed his ability to do so.

But he quickly learned that underneath Lincoln’s simple manner and unassuming demeanor was a quick wit and an uncanny ability to assess a critical situation, along with the patience, wisdom and self-control that it took to wait before making important decisions (and nearly all of the decisions he had to make during his tenure as president would be crucial). It was Stanton who uttered, “Now he belongs to the ages,” at Lincoln’s deathbed.

Oh, man, so much for a tear-free review.

It’s no easy task to write an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man who led a nation in an extraordinary time with a team of extraordinary men. But Doris Kearns Goodwin has risen to the challenge, driven by her passion for Lincoln and his legacy. Her work is, in a word: extraordinary.

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