Books we like
Posted on 1/9/2014
For the New Year, why not try something new at the library. If you read only fiction, you might change up your usual picks with three non-fiction selections I have found quite enjoyable. Engaging, suspenseful, succinct, and skillfully told, they recreate culturally important events with enough timeless drama to rival a stack of fiction bestsellers.
In The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch condenses his America in the King Years trilogy to highlight eighteen pivotal events from 1955 to 1968. A provocative, sometimes chilling photo introduces each short chapter.
It opens with Martin Luther King, Junior's first impromptu political speech in a Montgomery church on the first night of the bus boycott, four days after Rosa Park's arrest. Chapter Two then moves to 1960, describing the lunch counter sit-in's and the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As many Piedmont readers know, the Greensboro Woolworths sit-in on February 1, 1960--while not the first of its kind--was the first to make the news, propelling a snowballing movement. Within months, thousands of students demonstrated peacefully at lunch counters in more than seventy Southern cities. Eventually many were menaced and jailed, including King himself.
Branch here describes forty-one students, among the first to be arrested, from Raleigh's Cameron Village Woolworth store: "In handcuffs (they) swept across the threshold of the jail with eyes closed, hearts pounding, and, like the bus boycotters four years earlier, they soon re-emerged on bail to discover that their identities had not been crushed. They were unharmed and did not feel like trash. A flood of relief swelled their enthusiasm.”
Violence soon escalates against other nonviolent protestors in ensuing events across the South. From fire hoses and dogs turned onto marching Selma schoolchildren to death threats, terrorism, beatings, and unpunished murders, every chapter reveals courage along with outrage, hope rekindled from despair. Readers follow Freedom Riders, Washington marchers, Birmingham demonstrators and mourners. Branch recreates highlights from Freedom Summer, the 1964 presidential conventions, interactions with JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and King's receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Especially riveting are ten pages recounting "Crossroads in Selma." Anxious minutes unfold on the Edmund Pettus Alabama River Bridge two days after Bloody Sunday.
Complex political and social forces of the mid-1960's, summarized in Branch's last eight chapters, may send readers to his original trilogy, the first volume of which--Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963-- won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History. Included are King's dealings with Lyndon B. Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI targeting of King and the Movement, the genesis of Black Power, and King's growing desire to broaden his mission against racial injustice to help solve, as well, problems of poverty and war.
"Requiem in Memphis" concludes The King Years with seven pages of high drama leading to the last tragic moment we all know.
A second work of nonfiction that reads like fiction is Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. This 2012 National Book Award finalist by Steve Sheinkin has been widely read by adults as well as younger readers. In 272 photo-strewn pages, the story of our first atomic bomb unfolds as a three-way race among the US, Germany and Soviet Russia.
Bomb reads like a spy novel, creating suspense among the scientists rushing to create a gadget they could scarcely imagine. Actual spies across three continents come to life here as well, complete with code names and rendezvous from New York City to Sante Fe. Unknown to me until reading this book, Norwegian saboteurs risked their lives to destroy Germany's only source of heavy water.
Robert Oppenheimer and other major players were left with mixed emotions when the Trinity test succeeded in the New Mexico dessert. "It was extremely solemn, " Oppenheimer later recalled. "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent." Skeinkin then adds that Oppenheimer thought of a line from the ancient Hindu scripture, the Ghagavad-Gita, "a dramatic moment in which the god Vishnu declares: 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.'"
Bomb concludes with a copy of Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt dated August 2nd, 1939. Steinkin's closing remarks personalize the book for all readers: "In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history's most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it's also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It's a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, we are all in it."
A third book is longer but no less compelling.
In A Short History of the Civil War, Canadian historian James L. Stokesbury condensed the whole of the American Civil War into 329 readable pages. To mark the war's 150th anniversary, a reissued edition came out in 2011.
Reading Stokesbury feels like listening to an expert storyteller, even when he includes discussions of strategies, tactics, and the economies of the North and South as the war continued for years. While remaining largely neutral in his treatment of the warring nations, he freely shares feelings about various leaders, bringing everyone to life by including insightful quotes and less-known anecdotes. Despite adding human interest and personality, he never minimizes the tragedy and human cost.
Beyond appreciating the content and his overall presentation of it, the book is full of good writing. The author is a master crafter of paragraphs. And for readers who appreciate good endings to well-told stories, his way of wrapping up the action and summing up the war's significance offers bittersweet conclusions, poetic and fitting for such a grand conflict.
An added bonus, though dated, is his ten-page discussion of thematically grouped "Suggestions for Further Reading," offering comments on dozens of works on the war. Missing from the list is Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize winning 1987 novel, The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War, recommended as historical fiction about the Battle of Gettysburg.