April’s Best History & Current Affairs

Complicated times—like the one we’re currently living through—require more reading. Lucky for you, we have just the thing, a short list of must-read history and current events books that will help you put into perspective the torrent of news that hits us every day.

The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality, by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein
Historians Isenberg and Burstein examine the lives and political careers of father and son presidential team John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Prickly and iconoclastic, both Adams were smart politicians who foresaw much of what has gone wrong in American politics; many of the quotes the authors highlight are stunningly prescient in light of present-day events. Ironically, the fears of populism and abuse of power that made both men unpopular in their day—they were chastised for being insufficiently impressed with the great American experiment—have only burnished their historical reputations. This new assessment of their impact and influence is a must-read.

The Last Stone: A Masterpiece of Criminal Interrogation, by Mark Bowden
Rivaling the tension, slow-burn pacing, and twisting plot of the best thrillers, this true story is an absorbing account of a kidnapping case that went ice cold for more than two decades… and then cracked wide open. The story of Sheila and Katherine Lyon is a sadly common one: the girls vanished from a shopping mall in 1975. A teenager named Lloyd Welch gave a statement that he saw the girls leaving the mall with an older man, but the police discounted him as unreliable. In 2013, detective Chris Homrock came across the statement and reexamined it, tracking down Welch as he served time for abusing a child. As the police reopened the case and spoke to Welch numerous times, his ever-changing story slowly led them to the truth. Bowden expertly recounts the slow, fascinating process of real-life investigation, and the results form a page-turner of the highest order.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, by Mitchell Zuckoff
September 11th, 2001 is one of the most terrible days in American—and world—history. In this powerful new book, Zuckoff draws on interviews, documents, and recordings to offer a panoramic view of the events as they unfolded. It details the activities and presumptive thoughts of the hijackers, the people on board the hijacked airplanes and within the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and the military and first responders as they struggled to understand what was happening and launch an appropriate response. Filled with harrowing details, it is an emotionally devastating book for anyone who experienced that terrible day, whether in person or while glued to a television screen, and a necessary one for those too young to have done so themselves. Zuckoff finds moments of powerful heroism and personal bravery amid crisis, bringing elements of hope to the mix. The final result is a standout work, documenting all the moving parts that were impossible to see in the midst of the panic and terror of the day.

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen
Cohen examines one of the least-studied quirks of the American system of government: the very real possibility that the vice president will assume the presidency. Examining eight vice presidents who ascended to the role of commander in chief when their running mates died in office, Cohen explores how our political system works—or, more often, doesn’t work—to prepare the VP to takeover in the wake of tragedy. In offering insights into the way these eight power transitions and considering other times a president almost died in office, Cohen argues that the job of vice president is much more than merely ceremonial.

Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America’s Dad, by Nicole Weisensee Egan
Nicole Weisensee Egan was working as a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News in 2005 when Bill Cosby was first officially accused of sexual assault; while law enforcement ignored the victim and the media dismissed her as a liar, Egan kept a spotlight on the case. Her efforts were vindicated when the accusations against Cosby were reignited in 2014 and more than 60 victims came forward to accuse him. Egan walks the reader through the while sordid story, investigating how a combination of fame, wealth, and power allowed Cosby to behave like a monster with impunity for decades.

D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, by Sarah Rose
The usual histories of World War II usually focus on men—the soldiers, generals, spies, and politicians whose exploits have been celebrated for decades. They are heroic stories, and well worth telling, but so are those of fearless women like those who worked for the British Special Operations Executive, infiltrating into German-occupied France and working to sabotage, undermine, and spy on the enemy. The stories of highly competent, virtually unflappable, and devastatingly effective women like Odette Sansom—captured by double-agents and tortured for years without breaking or giving away her network—are the stuff of this fascinating new work of untold history.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, by Douglas Brinkley
Fifty years after the first Moon Landing, Brinkley brings us back to its roots, and the geopolitical conditions that spurred President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration of the goal of putting on the moon by the end of the decade. Brinkley details the incredible assemblage of brilliant minds, technology, and other resources that came together in one of the most amazing displays of human capability ever achieved. It’s an especially astonishing account to take in at a time when it seems increasingly impossible that our fractured government could ever pull together on such a project—that is to say: exactly the sort of inspirational history we need to remind us that the combined will of a country can—and has—resulted in incredible things.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner
Any baseball fan knows pitching is and has always been the true throughline of the game. By charting the progress of the sport through 10 distinct pitches, Kepner offers a fresh perspective on one of the most analyzed and romanticized games ever devised. Kepner’s investigative work traces the origins of the monumental pitches—from the curveball, first developed in 1867, to the maligned spitball, still secretly in use today—and legends like Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez discuss the technical side of their profession in fascinating terms.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World, by Steve Brusatte
Brusatte brings a personal tone to his study of the world’s most famous extinct creatures, beginning with his own childhood fascination with dinosaurs and progressing to our ever-changing understanding of a long-vanished world. Brusatte’s personal enthusiasm drenches every page, turning what might have been a mere assembly of interesting scientific facts and theories into a thrilling ride that underscores the through line between Earth’s ancient history and the present day—including the fact that there are still dinosaurs alive in 2019.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham
In his latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winner Meacham makes a sobering argument that while we might find ourselves alarmed and confused at the current state of politics and discourse in this country, we’re certainly not the first generation to feel this way. Examining lynchpin moments in American history, Meacham makes the compelling argument that while America has often plunged into demagoguery and nativism, it has also almost always eventually followed what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” and sought progress over darkness. There’s a power in knowing that we’ve been here before, and understanding how we found our way back out again.

What history books are on your reading list this April?

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