I do a fair amount of recreational reading, by which I mean reading that it isn’t directly related to my job. My wife likes to kid me that my reading subjects away from work aren’t all that recreational, because they mostly involve autobiographical history.
I like to read about general history but particularly enjoy the personal insights of the folks who experienced that history. A lot of my reading revolves around the World War II era, and I think it’s because I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when those earth-shaking events were still fresh and aspects still were in the daily news. Plus, every adult had a personal story to tell about the times. I’ve always been in awe of my parents’ generation, their sacrifices and their contributions; as a kid, I just thought I constantly walked among heroes.
With that as a sort of background, I thought I’d recount some of the books that are my recent favorites. I invite you to let me know if you’ve read any of these and any particular thoughts you might have on them:
“The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” by Timothy Egan. This is fascinating and enlightening work of historical reporting on the environmental disaster that ravaged the High Plains during the Dirty Thirties. It’s nonfiction but almost reads like fiction as Egan follows the rising fortunes, decline and destruction of a handful of impacted families and towns, and the unbelievable scale of the Biblical-style plagues of drought, dust, pestilence and death. My parents grew up during the Depression and Dust Bowl and often recounted stories of the hardships of those times, but this book really brings the era and the personal challenges to life.
“Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. This was a book I found hard to put down. It recounts the inspiring and improbable story of survival by a California street tough named Louis Zamperini, who changed his life when he discovered his gift for distance running. Competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a teenager, he was regarded as a likely prospect to break the barrier of a four-minute mile, but World War II intervened. While on a rescue mission with the U.S. Army Air Force, his plane crashes and he and two other crew members spend weeks afloat on a raft in the South Pacific. They barely escape death on the open sea, only to be captured by the Japanese. Then things really get bad. This is a fairly long book, but it’s one of the most riveting stories of personal strength and redemption that I’ve come across.
“Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History” by S.C. Gwynne – The Comanche were a formidable horse culture of warriors who dominated the Southern Plains for centuries. They operated in autonomous bands and their fierceness and stealth struck terror in the hearts of other tribes and settlers, while their ability to thrive in the vast and arid plains of the Southwest stymied attempts to subjugate them. Quanah Parker was the son of Comanche chief Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white settler kidnapped as a young girl and assimilated into the tribe. The Comanche were slowly overwhelmed and eventually subjugated by the U.S. in the late 1800s, and Quanah Parker’s tribe was the last of the Comanche of the Llano Estacado to leave the open plains. The book is a fascinating read on the dangers and rigors of life on the plains for both the Comanche and white settlers, and particularly the life of Quanah Parker.
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have developed their own genre of historical books about the last days of notable historical figures. The collection includes “Killing Lincoln – The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever,” “Killing Kennedy – The End of Camelot,” and “Killing Jesus.” What’s amazing about these books is that the authors delve into events that tend to be very well known to most Americans, and through meticulous research and lucid storytelling, turn them into insightful and educational page-turners that are really hard to put down. These are easy and fascinating reads, the detail and perspective are extraordinary, and the imagery is vivid. Due out soon is the pair’s fourth book in this genre, “Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General,” which will investigate the mysterious death of the legendary U.S. military leader, George Patton. I'm looking forward to this book. As an infantryman in World War II, my dad served under Patton during part of his time in Europe and says the troops loved the brusque and blustery armored commander. "Patton's the only general I ever saw at the front," he told me.
“Poems Worth Saving” by Baxter Black. I don’t think a reader can go wrong in picking up a Baxter Black book, tape, video, etc., and this compilation of 160 of the best classic pieces by one of America’s greatest humorists is a real treat. There’s everything in this book, thoughtful prose, poetry and humor, topped off with photos and illustrations by Bob Black, Don Gill, Dave Holl, Charlie Marsh, Etienne “A-10” Etcheverry and Bill Patterson. One of the things I really enjoy about Black’s writing is that, being familiar with his live performances, I have no trouble visualizing his voice and cadence as I read each piece he writes. After I acquired the book, I ran into Black and told him I was looking forward to reading it. His response was, “Well, if you don’t like it, just return the unread portion of the book, and I’ll return the unused portion of your money.”
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