Unlike others, my list is short on fiction and long on history, biography and narrative that delivers a veritable mother lode of unexpected image and reputation insights. So, here are my top three summer reads:
– "Empire of the Summer Moon" by S.C. Gwynne It was the Comanches and not the Sioux who gave the U.S. Cavalry the greatest fits as whites literally stole away the Native Americans' country from beneath them.
And, it was Quanah Parker not Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse or Geronimo who should be remembered as the greatest Indian chief of all. Suffice it to say that Parker, who led “the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen”, was unstoppable. That is, until the U.S. Cavalry finally figured out the Comanches were helpless without their horses. How Quanah Parker was finally captured and, in an even more fascinating twist, how he later reinvented himself to become a silent film star, a confidant of Teddy Roosevelt and, literally, the toast of turn-of-the-20th century America, makes for riveting reading (especially for those politicians who find themselves in need of image repair).
– 1861 by Adam Goodheart. Think Lincoln wanted to free the slaves? Think again. Think he believed blacks were his intellectual equal? Wrong. Think there weren't countless attempts by Northern and border state Congressional leaders to keep the Southern states from bolting right up until the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter? That's three in a row.
Finally, in a real Civil Rights curveball, might the now obscure James A. Garfield have become one of our country's greatest presidents had his life not been snuffed out after only a few months in office?
'1861' provides a whole new perspective on the last months of peace leading up to the worst war in American history (while shedding new light on one of only two periods in our country's 230 years when Congress simply refused to compromise for the greater good. Quick: can you name the other time?).
– 'In the Garden of Beasts' by Erik Larson. If you liked 'The Devil in the White City', you will adore In the garden of the beasts. It chronicles the true story of U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany William Dodd, his wife, son and daughter as they settle into Berlin just as Adolf Hitler consolidates his power.
The story is a real page turner as Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Hess and the other hoodlums of the Third Reich attempt to curry favor with the critically important American ambassador. Dodd will have none of it, though (hugely displeasing his direct reports in D.C. who, like their counterparts in Britain and France, turned a blind eye to one Nazi outrage after another in the name of appeasement).
The book's real breakout star, though, is Martha Dodd, who is equal parts Britney Spears, Mata Hari and Heidi Fleiss as she cavorts and sleeps with everyone from Hitler's driver and a Russian KGB agent to the head of the Gestapo and a French diplomat.
I found the parallels in 'Beast' to our current global dilemma striking since some would suggest we've turned a blind eye to foreign transgressions whenever it suited our political needs (i.e. The Diem regime in Vietnam, the shah in Iran, the early Hussein in Iraq, Qaddafi circa 2002, Pakistan for the past four decades, etc.).
I'm not sure who first said, “Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it,” but one wishes these three books had been absorbed by W., Cheney and Rummy before they entered office in 2001. Consider how different things might be today without Iraq, Afghanistan and a free-wheeling and irresponsible Wall Street. Or, for that matter, how 1861's lessons might have prevented the rise of a polarized political system that just prompted Standard & Poor's to drop our country's rating and probably kick start another recession.
Oh, well. At least, there's still another month of summer to lose oneself in a good book. Surf's up!