Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
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Posts tagged "Book recommendations"
Asker Anonymous Asks:
have you read anything lately you would recommend
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently and I keep saying that I’ll list a bunch of my recommendations and then promptly forget about it, so I might as well do it now.  

I’d really recommend Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday/Oct. 22nd), which comes out next Tuesday.  I was a big fan of Baker’s insider account of President Clinton’s impeachment, The Breach: Inside the Impeachment Trial of William Jefferson Clinton, and Days of Fire is another fantastic, insider account.  The Bush/Cheney relationship is incredibly fascinating.

There have also been some really good books released recently about JFK as we approach next month’s 50th anniversary of his assassination. I’ve received a bunch of JFK books over the past few months.  These were the ones that really stood out:

JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency by John T. Shaw (Palgrave Macmillan/Oct. 15th)
Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek (Harper/Oct. 9th)
JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke (The Penguin Press/July 16th)
If Kennedy Had Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam/Oct. 22nd)
The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis by David G. Coleman (W.W. Norton/Oct. 21st)
The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy by Larry J. Sabato (Bloomsbury/Oct. 15th)
We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963 by Allen Childs, MD (Skyhorse/Nov. 6th)

A few more books that I’ve read and really enjoyed over the past two months or so:

Wilson by A. Scott Berg (Putnam/Sept. 10th)
Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown by Chuck McFadden (University of California Press/May 6th)
The Light of Faith (Lumen Fidei) by Pope Francis (Ignatius Press/Aug. 31st) 
Birth School Metallica Death: The Biography, Volume 1 by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood (Da Capo Press/Nov. 15th)
Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life by Stanley Weintraub (Da Capo Press/Oct. 15th) 
Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance, and the Campaign of 1912 by Gerard Helferich (Lyons Press/Oct. 8th)
1808: The Flight of the Emperor: How a Weak Prince, a Mad Queen, and the British Navy Tricked Napoleon and Changed the New World by Laurentino Gomes (Lyons Press/Sept. 3rd)
The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason by John V. Fleming (W.W. Norton/July 22nd)
Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, D.C. by Kenneth J. Winkle (W.W. Norton/Aug. 19th)
The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War by Stephen Puleo (Westholme/Sept. 19th)
To Raise Up a Nation: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and the Making of a Free Country by William S. King (Westholme/Oct. 18th)
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown/Oct. 1st)
Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling (Bloomsbury/Oct. 10th)
Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal by Keel Hunt (Vanderbilt University Press/Aug. 2nd)
Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy (Pegasus/Nov. 14, 2013)
The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency by James Tobin (Simon & Schuster/Nov. 12, 2013)
Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked by Chris Matthews (Simon & Schuster/Oct. 1st)
We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works by Kurt Vonnegut (Da Capo Press/Oct. 15th)
Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend: Personal Recollections About the Man Who Became Pope edited by Alejandro Bermúdez (Ignatius Press/Sept. 16th)
Sons of the Father: George Washington and His Protégés edited by Robert M. S. McDonald (University of Virginia Press/Sept. 24th)
A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of An Eccentric In An Age of Change by John Glassie (Riverhead Trade/Nov. 5, 2013)
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy by Eri Hotta (Knopf/Oct. 29, 2013)

Like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently. 

Oh, there are piles and piles that I can recommend, so I’ll try to limit myself to what I think are the very best, beginning with Taylor Branch’s incredible trilogy:

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (BOOKKINDLE)
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (BOOKKINDLE)
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (BOOKKINDLE)

I also recommend:

Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America by Nick Kotz (BOOKKINDLE)
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson (BOOKKINDLE)

And it’s not necessarily about Dr. King, but a Civil Rights leader who was just as essential and involved in the Movement — and the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago during the March On Washington:

Walking the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso (BOOK)

Obviously, there are many, many more books that I could list, but these are my personal favorites.

While I am here, I want to share with you two really great books that I think you would enjoy as I did.  I hope to find some time to grind out the full-length reviews that these titles deserve, but here are two quick recommendations.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (BOOKKINDLE)
By Joseph J. Ellis (Available on June 4, 2013)
There are a handful of American authors in the 21st Century who can take some of the most familiar events and figures in our nation’s history and make them feel new and exciting and present.  Joseph J. Ellis is one of them.  He has already written classic, award-winning books such as Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (BOOKKINDLE), American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (BOOKKINDLE), His Excellency: George Washington (BOOKKINDLE), and First Family: Abigail and John Adams (BOOKKINDLE), among others.  In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis tells the story of the dramatic summer of 1776 and it should be on your reading list for the summer of 2013.  

A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (BOOKKINDLE)
By Thomas Fleming (Available on May 15, 2013)
Historian Thomas Fleming is so prolific that there isn’t a page in A Disease in the Public Mind listing all of his books — he’s written more than fifty of them.  Like Ellis, many of Fleming’s books focus on the American Revolution era, including his best and best-known work, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America (BOOKKINDLE), which remains high on the list of my all-time favorites.  A Disease in the Public Mind investigates not the cause, but the causes of the Civil War, in both the North and South, with Fleming’s gift for writing serious history at the pace of a novel.

I raced through both of these titles and highly recommend picking them up when they are released.  And while there is never a shortage of good books out there to read, right now seems to be a particularly fortunate time for our history buffs as we’ve had some fantastic new releases in 2013 so far and some great titles on the horizon for the remainder of the years.

I’m very excited today thanks to a load of books that arrived in the mail, and what I’m really stoked about is that one of the books is an Advance Uncorrected Proof of the first major biography in about 80 years about John Hay, who is an incredibly fascinating figure from history.

John Hay got his start in politics as one of Abraham Lincoln’s two young private secretaries (alongside John G. Nicolay).  Few people knew Lincoln better and nobody worked closer with Lincoln than Hay and Nicolay.  After Lincoln’s death, Hay and Nicolay collaborated on a massive 10-volume biography of the Great Emancipator.  Over the next few decades, Hay was a conspicuous figure in Washington society and in politics.  He was best friends with Henry Adams, and I can only imagine how awesome and gossipy their conversations were.  President McKinley appointed him as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom before bringing Hay home and making him Secretary of State.  Hay was Secretary of State throughout McKinley’s term and, after McKinley was assassinated, under Theodore Roosevelt who he became very close with and continued serving until he died in office in 1905.

Besides his full professional life, his impressive writing career, and his famous friends, Hay also had a pretty damn interesting personal life, as well.  I’ve been looking forward to this new book, All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, by John Taliaferro (BOOKKINDLE), for several months now.

I’m pretty hyped to start reading the book, so that’s what I’m going to do RIGHT NOW.  As for you guys, you know that I wouldn’t steer you in the wrong direction, so I think you should check out this new biography of John Hay (the first major book on Hay in EIGHTY YEARS!) from Mr. Taliaferro, All the Great Prizes, when it is released on May 14th!

Asker Anonymous Asks:
What are some good introductory books for understanding Churchill? I see some of his own writings but I don't know where to start.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I would suggest that you can begin and end with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, the recently-completed three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, which is about as definitive as it gets.  The first two volumes are by William Manchester and the third volume, released last year, was completed by Paul Reid from Manchester’s notes and research and at Manchester’s request following his death in 2004.  It can be quite an investment in time because it is incredibly detailed and exhaustive, but it’s absolutely worth it.

The Manchester/Reid trilogy was released in a boxed set last year as The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, 1874-1965 (BOOKKINDLE) and that’s probably the best overall deal.  But you can also get the three volumes individually if you want to work through them that way:

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester (BOOKKINDLE) — Volume I, originally released in 1983.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester (BOOKKINDLE) — Volume II, originally released in 1988.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid (BOOKKINDLE) — Volume III, originally released in 2012.

There are so many other great books about Churchill that you have a wealth of other choices if you don’t want to commit to the lengthy Manchester trilogy.  Sir Martin Gilbert is considered Churchill’s “official biographer” and has written or edited something like 20 books about Churchill, so I don’t even know where to begin with him, but I really like a book that Gilbert released last year called Churchill: The Power of Words: His Remarkable Life Recounted Through His Writings and Speeches (BOOKKINDLE).  In this book, Gilbert selected bits and pieces of Churchill’s best and most famous words and uses them chronologically to help tell (along with Gilbert’s introductions) Churchill’s life story.  Like Lincoln, it’s damn near impossible to go wrong with a book of Churchill’s writings and speeches.

And, if you’re looking for something just focusing on Churchill’s early life, there’s a new book out by Michael Shelden that tells that story really well — Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill(BOOKKINDLE).

Winston Churchill is one of those historic figures that I could probably devote an entire blog to simply posting book recommendations about, so I’ll leave you with these ones for now.  I’m confident that you’ll be happy with any of them.

Asker lewisandlife Asks:
Hi there, I have looked through your Essential Books page but was wondering if there is one biography, or other book about, Bill Clinton in particular that you would recommend?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Is there nothing on there for Clinton?  I really have to update that page.

Yes, there are quite a few great books on Clinton and I’ll list more than one because any of them will do the job.

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris (BOOKKINDLE) is one of my favorites.  It’s not a full-fledged biography, just a history of Clinton’s Presidency, but it’s a fantastic book by a solid journalist.

The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein (BOOKKINDLE) is another favorite of mine.  It’s short and again focuses just on Clinton’s Presidency, but you’ll really like it if you’re a big Clinton supporter because it sells his legacy about as good as anything else.

•I’m a fan of all of Nigel Hamilton’s work.  He’s written two books on Clinton, one on his early life and rise to power, and one on his Presidency.  The first one is the best one, Bill Clinton: An American Journey: Great Expectations (BOOKKINDLE) but it’s definitely worth checking out Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (BOOKKINDLE), too.

I could keep going on and on with Clinton books.  You can’t go wrong with these books either:
First In His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss (BOOKKINDLE)
The Agenda by Bob Woodward (BOOKKINDLE): Great look at the early struggles of Clinton’s Presidency
The Choice: How Bill Clinton Won by Bob Woodward (BOOKKINDLE): An even better Woodward-style book on the 1996 election
All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos (BOOKKINDLE): One of the best insider accounts of a White House at work

And I’ll just end the list with President Clinton’s own autobiography, My Life (BOOKKINDLE), which is one of the better memoirs written by a President.  Like I said, I could go on-and-on because there are lots of good Clinton books.  I’ll get that Essential Books page updated soon.

I ended up with a bit of spare money in a book scholarship and was very excited to pick up a copy of "The Man Who Saved the Union". I've been itching to read it ever since your review! So this is a thank you for always keeping me updated with potential new reading material. It is much appreciated.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Awesome, I’m glad to hear that!  I’m fortunate enough to get a ton of great books to review for AND Magazine, so I love being able to share my thoughts and make recommendations for my fellow history fans. 

Everyone is welcome to connect with me on Goodreads, as well.  Since I don’t always have the time to write a full-scale review on all of the books that I read, I’m going to try to remember to at least use Goodreads to post a short review (or a star rating at the very least!).  I’m training myself to go to Goodreads daily so that I am consistent about it, but you’ll have to be patient with me because, as anyone who follows me on Facebook and (especially) Twitter knows, I tend to go through phases.

You made a solid choice with The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOKKINDLE).  I think it was one of the best books of the year, and that’s no surprise since H.W. Brands always delivers.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the best book written about Grant other than the one that General Grant wrote about himself.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Hi Mr. Bergen-I am starting to collect books on the civil war era. How many books on the era do you have and is there a point where they get redundnant and you can't get much more from out of them? Thank YOU!
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Wow, I don’t really know how many books I have that focus on the Civil War or that era.  If I were forced to make a guess, I’d say that I probably have about 90 or 100 books on the Civil War.  Most of them focus on specific aspects of the Civil War or the crises that led to the war or the important individuals and events.  Few of the books try to tell the complete history of the war and that’s good because it really can’t be done in one volume.  So, if you were to dig through my Civil War library, you’d find a lot of biographies of people like William Tecumseh Sherman and Jefferson Davis, as well as books like William J. Cooper’s recent released We Have the War Upon Is: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (BOOKKINDLE) which takes a detailed look at the country from Lincoln’s election to the firing on Fort Sumter as President Buchanan’s lame duck administration does nothing while states begin to secede from the Union.

I don’t think they get redundant at all.  Sure, you’ll cover some common ground, but each writer tells the stories in a different way, spotlight different people or events, and bring the history to us in their own voice.  I actually prefer to read several books on the same subject because it really drives home the history, breaks through any potential biases or inconsistencies of individual authors, and helps complete the story.

I never think of common history that I read from different authors as redundancies.  It’s more like a validation of the information.  I truly believe that you can always get more out of a story, whether it’s through research that reveals new information, or the perspective of the writer, or just the way that something is written.  Just as an example, if an editor asked me to write a different story every day for a week but that I had to detail Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in the story as the centerpiece each day, I could easily do it by shifting the narrative or approaching the details a little differently or with a totally different voice.  That’s how I look at multiple books about a common subject.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
you haven't reviewed a book in some time. did you cut down on your reading?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

No, I’ve been slacking on my writing.  I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to actually writing my reviews.

The reading is going just fine.  Last night, I finished H.W. Brands’ new book The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOKKINDLE), which will be released on October 2nd.  Today, I started Burton I. Kaufman’s The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton, which hits stores on November 11th.  The Brands book is a must-read, especially if you’re a fan of the Civil War-era or General Grant.  I’m enjoying the Kaufman book so far, as I suspected I would, considering its from the University Press of Kansas — one of the best (and most prolific) publishers of books about Presidents and all aspects Presidential history from people, politics, and elections to focused studies of specific Presidential policies and/or Administrations.

As always, I have a bunch of questions in my inbox about books I would recommend on various Presidents or eras of American History, so I just wanted to remind everybody that I’ve created a standalone page here on Dead Presidentsthat lists what I would consider my “Essential Books”.

The list is filled with books essential to my studies, as well as the books that I would consider the best or my favorite volumes on individual Presidents, the Presidency in general, U.S. or World history, and even just my favorite books overall.  The "Essential Books" page will never be complete — I will always continue to add more-and-more books that I personally would highly-recommend.  If you’re in a bind or looking for a good read, I definitely suggest checking out the “Essential Books” page.