February’s Best New History & Current Events Books

If you’re reading this, congrats, you made it through the first month of 2019. Considering the state of the world, you deserve a reward for this feat of survival—and nothing’s better than a book. This month offers an insightful work of history about Wild Bill Hickock, the late Michelle McNamara’s powerful investigation into the Golden State Killer case, a ripped-from-the-headlines examination of the Parkland shooting, a considerations of the current state of journalism, and a look at the FBI under the Trump administration.

Parkland: Birth of a Movement, by Dave Cullen
In some ways the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was all too typical: innocent victims, a deranged killer, a media frenzy, thoughts and prayers. But something unusual happened in its aftermath: the kids who survived didn’t just go back to their lives and let the murders fade into our collective memory alongside so many earlier such tragedies. They made noise. They started a movement. Cullen, who as a journalist covered the 1999 Columbine shootings and in 2009 published an exhaustive account of what was, up to that point, the deadliest school shooting in history, was drawn to these kids and their courage, and inspired to tell their story. Here, he details not just the grim facts of the killings, but the reaction of the extraordinary youths who lived through it, and decided to fight back against a culture they felt seemed to have long ago resigned itself to mass violence as a part of life in the modern United States.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara passed away in 2016 at the age of 46, but left behind a powerful legacy in the form of this book, now available in paperback. It’s the result of her years-long investigation into the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed the Golden State Killer, who, thanks in part to McNamara’s efforts o draw additional attention to the cold case, was finally captured in 2018. When she began tracing the crimes in 2011, DNA testing had already linked more than 50 sexual assaults and murders dating back to the mid-1970s to a single man.. The attacks stopped after a decade, and the killer disappeared—but McNamara, with the help of others who gathered at her website, tracked him tirelessly through the available evidence. After her unexpected passing, her team continued the work, finishing this remarkable book, which skillfully combines true-crime details with a novelist’s flare for storytelling.

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, by Tom Clavin
Wild Bill Hickok is a curious historical figure: both incredibly famous and yet largely mysterious. Clavin employs a wide net in terms of source material to track Hickock’s life from his birth in 1837, to his first jobs in law enforcement, to the development of the quick-draw gunfighting style that made him famous—and made him a target for anyone seeking to make their name as a gunslinger. The portrait that emerges is of a man who shot first and worried later, resulting in occasional collateral damage—and yet he was ultimately killed after being shot in the back, because he didn’t regard his murderer as a threat. It’s sometimes hard to believe the Old West actually existed and wasn’t just the stuff of Hollywood films, but Clavin brings it all to vivid life in this gripping account of one of its most famous inhabitants.

Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, by Jill Abramson
Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson examines the rise, fall, and rise of journalism in the modern age in a book made suddenly very timely by the recently announcement of layoffs across several major media outlets, including Buzzfeed. That company is one of four Abramson follows as she traces the impact of the internet on the news, alongside with the Times, The Washington Post, and Vice. The initial assumption—that the old-school newspapers would fail while the disruptive upstarts would triumph with clickbait—didn’t quite pan out; the former managed to pivot to online subscriptions while the latter upped their game in terms of journalistic quality. Yet the price of this transformation may have been paid by us, the audience, who now have to pore over news that blurs the lines between advertising, reporting, and mere spectacle.

The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, by Andrew G. McCabe
When Andrew McCabe was fired by President Donald Trump a little over a day before his scheduled retirement, it seemed to many to be a petty and unnecessary action against a man who had served his country and the FBI with distinction. In this memoir, McCabe offers a thoughtful and powerful defense of his career, and concludes that the biggest threat to the FBI and the United States isn’t an external one—it’s the president and the administration that views the nation’s top law enforcement organization as alternately a threat and a private police force. McCabe served in the FBI for decades at all levels, and brings that experience to bear in his argument.

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