The 2022 War On The Rocks Holiday Reading List
The Daughters of Kobani, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. This deeply researched book highlights the role of Kurdish women fighting against ISIS in Syria. In sharing their stories, the author offers nuanced perspectives on the war in Syria, the plight of the Kurds, and the battle against ISIS. In particular, the individual motivations and experiences of the women warriors in this book provide a crucial contribution to understanding the Middle East and the role of women in war more broadly.
The Women of Chateau Lafayette, Stephanie Dray. A great fiction book for easy and enlightening reading over the holidays, Dray presents the experiences of different women in France during the French Revolution and both world wars. She highlights the long-overlooked role that Adrienne Lafayette played in history through her courage and determination, as well as Beatrice Chanler’s role in World War I and World War II, particularly through her charitable work. A delight to read, the author also is serious about her historical research.
Chip War: The Fight For the World’s Most Critical Technology, Chris Miller. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit of a luddite, at least when it comes to computer technology. But Chris Miller’s book on America’s long-running entanglement with the global semiconductor industry was engaging enough to keep even me interested in the technical details. Miller details how semiconductors enabled America’s Cold War victory, its military preeminence over the last few decades, and the significant challenges that China’s rise within global semiconductor supply chains poses for U.S. security.
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, Adam Tooze. This book is a few years old now, but holds up surprisingly well for it. There are relatively few books that place economic statecraft at the core of global geopolitics — at least when compared to the piles of books written on military-technical questions — but it’s an approach that yields surprising insights. Tooze’s book is eminently readable, and the long scope of the book provides a distinct advantage, allowing the author to connect seemingly disparate events: the 2008 financial crisis, the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, Brexit, or the rise of Donald Trump.
A Game of Birds and Wolves, Simon Parkin. This fascinating account tells the story of World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic primarily through the lens of an obscure unit known as British Western Approaches Command. Parkin reveals how a medically retired naval officer and hundreds of largely unknown women of the Royal Navy auxiliaries known as “Wrens” helped run an intricate series of war games to develop the tactics that ultimately defeated the German U-Boat threat that nearly cost Britain the war. A new and timely contribution to World War II literature, this very human story shines a much-needed light on the vital importance of unsung women to winning critical parts of the war — from code-breaking to air defense plotting to defeating German subs.
Churchill as Warlord, Ronald Lewin. Keeping with the themes of World War II and Britain’s desperate war effort, this wartime leadership biography of Winston Churchill focuses on the extraordinary combination of traits that made him an irascible, frustrating, but absolutely essential war leader — serving Britain in an unprecedented wartime role as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. This book insists that we take seriously the notion that individuals in wartime deeply matter to the outcome of every conflict — and remind us that Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky is merely our most recent example.
The New Neighbor, Karen Cleveland. I devoured this spy novel during a transatlantic flight, which made the hours fly by (pun intended). Beth Bradford is a CIA analyst who has been tracking a specific Iranian intelligence agent for many years. Yet she gets pulled from the case at the same time that an impending divorce leads her to sell her house and move away from her close friends on that quiet cul-de-sac. Soon she becomes obsessed with the woman who bought her house, who seems to have everything that Beth once had. Is the new neighbor the Iranian agent that Beth has been searching for all these years? The plot twists and turns until a final reveal, which I’m still thinking about months later.
Carrie Soto Is Back, Taylor Jenkins Reid. This is the perfect Christmas equivalent of a summer beach read. Curl up in front of a fire and meet Carrie Soto, the fictional analogue of Serena Williams, who set a (fictional) record by winning 20 Grand Slam titles in her remarkable career. That record holds until six years after her retirement, when rising superstar Nicki Chan wins her 21st title at the U.S. Open. 37-year-old Soto decides to come out of retirement and try to reclaim her record during one final season. Of course a romance ensues, with the male training partner who is also trying to regain his former glory. Even if you don’t know much about tennis, you’ll enjoy joining Soto along a journey that ends up being about what she learns along the way.
The Autobiography of Admiral Dewey, George Dewey; and Nimitz at War, Craig Symonds. The autobiography of the admiral whose victory arguably brought the U.S. Navy to the world stage and the biography of the Admiral who was the architect of the war that solidified America’s role on the high seas both enlighten readers on maritime operations. Dewey’s autobiography, while lacking the eloquence of Grant’s memoirs, is important for understanding Dewey’s experience during the Civil War, peacetime activities, and the Battle of Manila Bay. Unfortunately Dewey does not address his brief presidential run in 1900. The Nimitz biography is expertly told by Symonds, one of the best contemporary naval historians and he doesn’t disappoint with this work.
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin; All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business, Mel Brooks; and So, Anyway, John Cleese. A grouping of autobiographies from three of the greatest comedians/writers of the late 20th century may be an odd selection for a national security site, but there are important lessons from all three, such as what one can learn from early failures or the analysis into how audiences respond to commentaries. Plus, after COVID, a continuing war in the Ukraine, and the potential for an economic recession, we all need a few laughs and comedic memories in 2023.
Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, Mark Galeotti. It is handy as an overview that helps place the current war in Ukraine in a larger context.
Redeployment, Phil Klay. Just had the chance to read this, well worth the effort. Short stories but continuity among them.
Ascending Order: Rising Powers and the Politics of Status in International Institutions, Rohan Mukherjee. Mukherjee examines how international institutions can either enable or constrain rising powers. His cases studying the rise of the United States, Japan, and India are insightful and contain many lessons for managing modern day challenges.
Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty, Aynne Kokas. Kokas examines how the Chinese government and Chinese companies approach data. She makes the case that the United States must get its own digital house in order before it can effectively address the challenges that China poses in the digital domain.
Worldmaking in the Long Great War: How Local and Colonial Struggles Shaped the Modern Middle East, Jonathan Wyrtzen. For everyone who has been exasperated by simplistic historical accounts that trace the origins of the modern Middle East — and its problems — back to the Sykes-Picot agreement, Worldmaking in the Long Great War offers a long overdue corrective. Wyrtzen shows how the overlapping and conflicting interests of local actors and imperial powers interacted across several decades to reshape the political geography of the region stretching from Morocco to Iran.
Sultan in Oman, Jan Morris. In 1955, journalist Jan Morris tagged along with the Sultan of Muscat and Oman as he toured his newly consolidated realm. The result was this concise, colorful account, one of the last and least well known installments in the Orientalist travel genre.
Superpower in Peril: A Battle Plan to Renew America, David McCormick with James Cunningham. I had the privilege to read this book as it was being written. It surfaces critical ideas on how the United States can prepare itself for the competition ahead. It offers an optimistic vision for American renewal that will resonate with people across the partisan divide.
Command, Lawrence Freedman. Freedman delivers a beautifully written and eclectic book on one of the most important and tragic human activities: command in wartime.
The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink, William Inboden. An often divisive figure in his time, the legacy of Ronald Reagan unites more than it divides as time goes on. Inboden has written an important book based on years of archival research that will appeal to people who hold all sorts of opinions on the 40th U.S. president.
By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, Michael Green. To know where we’re going in Asia, it helps to know where we’ve been. Mike’s masterful account not only recounts events and personalities, but also explores the strategic rationale underlying America’s long engagement in the region. It was published a few years ago but remains a must-read.
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, Ariel Sabar. This nonfiction account weaves together papyrus, Biblical history, Harvard Divinity School and the East German Stasi. Fascinating. Forgery? Read on.
Au Café de la Ville Perdue, Anaïs LLobet. Sorry non-French-speakers: So far, this brilliant book is only available in French. It tells the story of Varosha, a ghost town in the no-mans land between the part of Cyprus that is occupied by Turkey, and the Greek-Cypriot part. It is the story of a war, of a family, and of a nation, set brilliantly in different moments in time. My book of the year.
The Passenger, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz. There is the story in the book, and the story of the book. Both are important, insightful, and harrowing. The Passenger tells the story of a German Jew, trying to leave his country while its society’s values are crumbling. The book takes the reader on a frantic, and at times kafkaesk, trip, and makes one realise what it really means to having to leave a life behind. The Passenger was (re-)published only last year, but written in 1938, by 23-year-old Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz. Boschwitz had managed to leave Germany in time — only to be deemed an “enemy alien” and interned on the Isle of Man, and then deported to Australia where he was interned again. When he was allowed to return, the boat that brought him back was sunk by a German submarine. The book, and Boschwitz story remind us that there is little justice in life.
The Gun, C.J. Chivers. While the subject of this book is the AK-47 and its many derivative variants, Chivers takes on several tasks more ambitious than the history of a single weapon. He traces the development of automatic weapons generally, and institutional resistance to their integration into militaries before World War I. He highlights the degree to which the Soviet and Nazi militaries in World War II began to recognize that the cartridge fired by a gun was at least as important as the weapon that fired it, and that the advent of automatic weapons diminished the importance of long-range power and accuracy. And he details how the Soviets used the licensing and export of a cheap, robust weapon to transform combat in the 20th century, lending capability to rebels that had previously been the purview of states with large military budgets, and how the U.S. military struggled to catch up, both conceptually and technologically. In a time of military uncertainty and transformation, this book offers food for thought.
No Picnic on Mount Kenya, Felice Benuzzi. A true story set in East Africa in World War II. Young Italian men who had been part of the administration of Ethiopia are held in a British POW camp from which they can see Mt. Kenya in the distance. Armed with this vision and a picture of the mountain from the label on their tinned beef rations which they use as a map, they resolve to break out of the camp and climb the mountain. Their escape is not part of any war effort — rather, it is an attempt to do something difficult just for the challenge of it and the good of their soul. A fascinating and inspiring story by a participant who went on to a distinguished post-war career as an Italian diplomat.
The Oppermans, Lion Feuchtwanger. The saga of a cultured, assimilated extended Jewish family living in Berlin during the eve and dawn of Nazi rule. Already exiled from his native Germany when this book was first published in 1934, the Jewish novelist wrote presciently and incisively about a country that had lost its mind and morality. Everyone — including some of Feuchtwanger’s Jewish characters — believed that Hitler’s violent rhetoric and vituperation was merely electioneering noise: Once he actually had to govern, they consoled themselves, he and his followers would surely temper their extremism. Feuchtwanger knew better — and also excoriates the Western democracies (including the United States) for similarly believing that over time Hitler would become more moderate. “It was an earthquake, one of those great upheavals of concentrated fathomless, world-wide stupidity,” Feuchtwanger writes. “Pitted against such an elemental force, the strength and wisdom of the individual was useless.” I had watched the PBS dramatization of The Oppermans in 1983 and never forgot it. I was therefore thrilled when Carroll & Graff recently published a new edition of this classic work — with an appendix reproducing the review published in the New York Times on March 18, 1934. The book’s chilling message of how easily democracy is destroyed when lies become truth; the media is suppressed; and, anyone who stands in “the Leader’s” way is silenced, driven from office, and worse, resonates as clearly today as it did eight decades ago.
The Zealot and the Emancipator, H.W. Brands. Is the United States today on the verge of civil war? Will a version of “Bloody Kansas” — a nineteenth-century evocation of Northern Ireland’s more recent “Troubles” — surface before or more likely following the 2024 presidential election? Although such comparisons are now almost routinely invoked, Brands’ magisterial history of America in the 1850s dispels the simplicity of such comparisons. Intertwining the stories of the violent abolitionist, John Brown, with the future U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln.
The Politics of Command, Lawrence Freedman. An insightful study into the complex nature of supreme leadership and decision making at the summit. Explore the fusion of political and military counsel in major conflicts, ranging from the Korean War to the present. Concludes with an exposition into the nature of command in an age of disruptive technologies that offers deep insights with unusual clarity.
Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, Michael Gordon. We’re now far enough away from this war to see the second edition of history, told in a compelling manner by a master journalistic. Gordon blends a journalist’s concise pen with the tenacious attention to detail of an historian. Its time to draw critical lessons from nearly 20 years of an incomplete conflict, Degrade and Destroy is the place to start.
Resourcing the National Security Enterprise: Connecting the Ends and Means of US National Security, Susan Bryant and Mark Troutman. This is a concise anthology about the process and politics of the U.S. national security budget. The admixture of bureaucratic culture and Byzantine federal mechanisms to assess and allocate scarce resources has rarely been well understood. These two practitioners have crafted a taut product that should be employed in any strategic studies program.
The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters. The first in a trilogy, this book follows Detective Hank Palace as he tries to solve a mystery with the world on the edge of extinction. Winters keeps you on the edge of your seat as Palace gets to work – I ordered the rest of the series before I got to page 100.
The Mechanical, Ian Treggilis. Another great series, The Mechanical is the first in the trilogy known as The Alchemy Wars. Set in an alternate timeline where the Dutch are the world superpower, it follows the story of a robot named Jax. There is something for everyone in this series, topics of free will, ethics and of course…war.
The American War in Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian. I’ve been reading many books about Afghanistan lately, but this is (for now) the definitive source on the 20-year American involvement there following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The title suggests a singular “American” focus, but the book also includes material from a wide range of sources and perspectives. Both thorough and readable, this book is more than just a first cut of history; it is sure to be a go-to source for years to come.
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, Thomas Barfield. Had U.S. policymakers taken account of Afghanistan’s history and culture, they might have avoided many of the errors that Malkasian documents in his book. Barfield’s book isn’t new (first released in 2010), and it is mostly focused on the period well before the Soviet invasion, subsequent U.S. proxy war, and eventual direct U.S. intervention post-9/11. But that only makes it more interesting. Easily digestible even by those unfamiliar with the topic.
The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and Its Case for Renewal, Bill Burns. This memoir, a few years old now, employs official communications to make the case that America is a force for good in the world and that its interests can be advanced through skilled statecraft. The reader will sometimes be grateful Burns got his way, and other times thankful he did not, but all the while will be engaged in a history that brings the diplomacy surrounding the major events of more than three decades—the end of the Cold War, the transformation of international institutions, the rise of China, a belligerent Russia, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the JCPOA—to very colorful life.
The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, The Cold War, and the World on the Brink, Will Inboden. I confess that I have not made it through the last third of this book (no spoilers on how the Cold War ends!), yet I can safely say this is a must-read. Dr. Inboden draws upon his original research to show how President Reagan, who “saw the Cold War primarily as a battle of ideas, overlaid on a great-power competition,” magnified every American strength—our economy, diplomacy, military, and liberty—to accomplish the seemingly-impossible goal of a negotiated surrender of the Soviet Union. You will not want to put this remarkable volume down.
Managing U.S. Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century, Charles Glaser, Austin Long, and Brian Radzinsky (eds). There are no end of books and articles on the theory of strategic deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons, but fewer on the process by which the U.S. government manages its nuclear operations. This book offers a sound examination of the topic, with contributions by some of the best practitioners in the field. It clearly illustrates a post-Cold War approach to how nuclear weapons contribute to U.S. defense policy. The book is easily digestible by the general interested reader and should be included in any educational course on nuclear deterrence.
Seeking the Bomb, Vipin Narang. While it is important to understand how the U.S. government manages its nuclear operations, it is equally important to understand how other nations with nuclear stockpiles have developed their nuclear weapons programs, in as much as they are different than the U.S. model. Dr. Narang’s previous book Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era started the discussion on how other states developed their nuclear postures; he continues the discussion here with a strong history of those efforts along with the development of proliferation strategies adopted by various nations. While it may be true that a nuclear war cannot be won, there are still a lot of nations who have seriously considered how to develop this capability, and understanding how they did this assists in future nonproliferation activities.
The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape From North Korea, Jihyun Park and Seh-lynn Chai. An incredible story of survival and escape that provides tremendous insight into North Korea that can only be told by someone who has experienced such hardship. It is also unusual that the story of North Korea contradictions is told to a Korean from the South who is a successful businesswoman and human rights advocate. On a personal note, despite my years in the military with Special Forces qualification, Ranger School, and survival training, I question whether I could have endured the unbelievable adversity and suffering like Jihyun Park. Anyone who wants to understand North Korea and be inspired by the strength of a true survivor must read this book. (Available now in Kindle and in hardback on Amazon on Jan. 31, 2023.)
Waging A Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968, Thomas E. Ricks. This is an important history told from an expected perspective — that of a military campaign and as Ricks notes, “strategic decision making.” He also notes that “the central tactic of the movement — the march — is also the most basic of military operations. Indeed, even in war, marching is sometimes more decisive than violence.” All students of revolution, resistance, and insurgency (and unconventional warfare) should read this history. Anyone who wants to better understand American history should read this book. I would add this book to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies studies.
Mr. X and the Pacific, Paul Heer. This study of George Kennan’s role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific after World War II is a fascinating and important reminder of the twists and turns of U.S. policy during that time — including a momentary choice to write off Taiwan/Formosa. Without the Korean War, the whole course of the Cold War, at least in Asia, would have been very different. It’s also an important reminder of the practical challenges of holding to a consistent foreign policy theory: Kennan repeatedly worries about excessive applications of his containment doctrine, but couldn’t divorce himself from parallel worries about credibility. He was fine writing Korea out of the U.S. security perimeter, for example — then turned around and urged his government to intervene once North Korea attacked. An engagingly written, deeply researched account.
The Guardians, Geoffrey Kabaservice. Formally a biography of Kingman Brewster, the reformist president of Yale during much of the 1960s, this is a brilliant study of the public service ethic of the old Eastern establishment, and the decline of that establishment in the late 1960s and 1970s. The story of Brewster alone is worth the price of admission — a tremendous leadership study with more than a few magnificent episodes. But the book also provides a thoughtful and superbly written snapshot of American politics and culture during these years: The turbulent 60s, the discrediting of the old-style establishment, the rise of Nixon and a more bitter and combative political style, and much more. One of the most instructive and enjoyable books I have read in years.
The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large, Harlan Ullman; and
Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward, James Howard Kunstler. Read Ullman and Kunstler together. Harlan Ullman (a friend) gives us the 30,000-foot theory of likely future disruption in our politics, infrastructure, and ecosystems (“Massive Attacks of Disruption,” his new MAD), while Kunstler agrees, and then shows how Americans will struggle through it. A powerful reminder that while the big picture may be ugly, there are always smaller success stories that can give hope. There can be optimism along with the doom.
Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, Douglas R Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander. A deep, slow, philosophical treatment of how we use analogy not only to communicate, but more simply to make sense of all the unpredictable sense images that constantly bombard us. The authors bring real insight on the intersection of sense perception and language, with example after example to make the theory far more tangible. The authors maintain that “analogy is the core of all thinking.” You’ll likely agree after this read — and you’ll not see the world, or communication, in the same way.
Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset. This trilogy follows the life of Kristin Lavransdatter in the late 13th and 14th centuries. Both captivating in its story and fascinating in its historical detail, this is a unique piece of literature. I recommend reading the older translation by Charles Archer (he was friends with the author), which, although a bit more challenging because of the archaic English Archer uses, helps transport the reader to another age. The author, Sigrid Undset, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 for her depiction of northern life during the Middle Ages.
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene. Graham Greene’s well-known novel, The End of the Affair, follows the rather brief romance between the protagonist Maurice Bendrix and a married woman, Sarah Miles. But the bulk of the novel focuses on his obsession with learning why she suddenly put an end to their affair. This is a beautiful story about love, heartbreak, and, ultimately, faith.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder. Infinitely depressing and will upend your understanding of how Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany devastated the civilian population in occupied Eastern Europe — even before World War II. The story here connects
and intertwines the two stores of catastrophically murderous regimes and their combined effects. One of the most disturbing books you’ll ever read.
Confessions of a Phantom Pilot, Tug Wilson. Lighthearted and funny, and a necessary complement to the unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach engendered by my other recommendation.
The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, Gregg Herken. A riveting, beautifully written examination of American foreign policy and grand strategy debates during the early decades of the Cold War. The story is told through the remarkable lives, tumultuous friendships, and oft-picayune squabbles of a colorful set of individuals — ranging from the Alsop Brothers to Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, Allen Dulles, Averell Harriman, and Katherine Graham — all of whom at one stage lived in close proximity to each other, in the quaint, leafy neighborhood of Georgetown. Herken transports us back to the smoky parlors and raucous, booze-drenched dinners of Cold War Washington at a time when, as Henry Kissinger once memorably quipped, “the hand that mixed the Georgetown martini” was often that which “guided the destiny of the Western world.” By focusing on the rich inner lives of these brilliant, yet deeply flawed characters who helped shape the contours of American statecraft at a singularly momentous period in its history, Herken has provided us with a unique history of Cold War, one which has the benefit of being genuinely entertaining in addition to immensely informative.
Ivan the Terrible, Andrei Pavlov and Maureen Perrie. I enjoyed this concise, tersely written biography on Ivan the Terrible, part of Routledge’s excellent “Profiles in Power” series. Ivan IV, more commonly known as “Ivan the Terrible,” (r.1547–1584) was, through his creation of the Oprichnina system and reign of terror, in many ways the “founding father” of tsarist despotism. Refusing to listen to many of his more seasoned advisors, Ivan embarked on a ruinous and unnecessary campaign of aggression which united much of Europe against him. The Livonian war lasted 24 years, drained the state’s coffers, and encouraged large-scale emigration and defections of boyars, princes & nobles. It also revealed to Russia’s neighbors its military deficiencies. As another historian, Alexander Filyushkin, notes Russian forces had little experience in fighting technologically advanced foes, were unused to early modern siege warfare, and to “storming heavily fortified stone positions.” This “was a different kind of war” during which, even to their Western European adversaries’ surprise, they performed far more poorly than anticipated. Ivan’s pigheaded focus on the Baltic military theater, even in the face of considerable losses, left Russia vulnerable to a resurgence of threats from other axes and to devastating attacks from the foreign-supported Crimean Tatars, with Moscow burning to the ground in 1571. After a colossal expenditure in blood and treasure, Russia was defeated, driven out of Livonia (a territory comprising much of present-day Estonia and Latvia), and forced to forfeit vast tracts of previously occupied territory. Ivan’s great Baltic gambit had been for naught. Through his toxic blend of domestic despotism and military imprudence, Ivan had brought Russia’s economy to the brink of ruin, reinforced its isolation and undermined its societal stability, helping to usher in the Time of Troubles.
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer. A brilliant but abrasively arrogant man, Holbrooke’s career is a perfect lens through which to view American statecraft from Vietnam to the Balkans to Afghanistan. Despite never rising above the level of assistant secretary at the State Department, Holbrooke was at the forefront of several of the biggest events in 20th-century U.S. history. Packer’s writing is some of the best in the business, and he deftly weaves together diplomacy, power, and Holbrooke’s personal life (which could be gently called “complicated”). An absolute must-read.
How to Stage a Coup: And Ten Other Lessons From the World of Secret Statecraft, Rory Cormac. The dark arts of statecraft are all here: assassination, propaganda, disinformation, subversion. Cormac takes us through how states use covert action to shape our world, with in-depth research and an eye for a piquant anecdote. It has almost become cliché to say that such subjects are more important to understand than ever, but it is nonetheless true, and this is the perfect book for doing so. (The author is careful to note that this is not actually a “how-to” book — but he would say that, wouldn’t he?)
The Fleet At Flood Tide, James Hornfisher. Read it for many reasons, including to appreciate the monumental achievements of Chester Nimitz. Even with a couple of new biographies and his compliment etched in the Marine Corps memorial, Chester Nimitz is World War II’s least appreciated great leader. A Texan who grew up speaking German, convicted at court martial for running a ship aground, developer of underway replenishment, courageous enough to wager the fleet on Midway, he’s the most interesting innovator of the era. Eisenhower is deservedly credited for emollient leadership of intractable personalities, Nimitz had it equally rocky and managed it equally well. I’m still laughing at Hornfischer’s fabulous description of Nimitz that “He lay like a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit: Ernest King and General Douglas MacArthur.”
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy. Nobody writes like McCarthy — the archaic language, garrulous psychopaths, his brief description of a Comanche raid in Blood Meridian is terrifyingly unforgettable. Same with this book. It opens with the suicide of a brilliant and disturbed women whose conversations with the flipper armed dwarf in her head carry through, interspersed with the guilt of the brother that loved and lost her as he tries to figure out the connection between physicists of the Manhattan Project and a contemporary plane crash. One of the characters gives a perfect summation of McCarthy’s books: “If I think about things that I just don’t want to know about, they’re all things that I do know about.” Not an uplifting read, but a haunting one.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
Recommending completed series to a dear friend (or those who might be) is such a delight. This year I could share Naomi Novik‘s Scholomance series, which could be shorthanded as Harry Potter but with realistic risk and violence, but is really about friendship, alliances, expressions of care, and our monsters. Or I could pass on Daniel O’Malley‘s The Rook Files, a supersecret supernatural government bureaucracy (that does bureaucracy brilliantly!) that just wrapped up with Blitz, set partially, in, uh, the Blitz and featuring deep cut cameos from A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. But with bitter and sweet I’ll ask if you’ve read Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall trilogy, her glorious reimagining of Thomas Cromwell that has made prior appearances on this list but deserves a final mention. I was sneaking in a chapter of the Mirror and the Light with my coffee before work earlier this year when I learned that Dame Hilary had passed away. After so many rereads Thomas Cromwell was a friend — an unexpected one — who offered treasures from each pass in his love of his family and friends, his commitment to service and England, abiding loyalty, and ultimate lack of foresight. The first time I read the concluding book it was with anxiety, knowing what was coming, but the last time was with a little glee, watching foes apply webs Cromwell had himself woven first and with greater skill.
Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet, James P. Stevenson. I wanted a very niche book about a specific topic: how the F-18 was built and paid for. This book delivers, and more. It is an exhaustive look at the debates surrounding Naval aviation and how the F-18 was justified, built, and then tested.
Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story Of American Submarine Espionage, Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew. It is rare to recommend a book that you can easily finish in an afternoon. You can easily finish Blind Man’s Bluff in an afternoon. It is that good. As someone who spends too much time reading about air power and Turkey, this was a welcome jaunt into a world I knew so little about. I learned a lot about submarine warfare and espionage and had fun doing so.