The best books I read this last year.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is one of the most amazing biographies and histories I’ve ever read. When it comes to a historical figure as well-known as Lincoln, it may seem like there would be very little left to discover or surprise. This book does just that–but more importantly, it shows his amazing skill as a leader and political mastermind. In addition, one discovers just why the men who hoped to defeat him in his quest for the presidency ended up being his staunchest supporters. A brilliantly written, engaging, and fantastic book on what it means to be a leader.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. I knew very little of this book or chapter in history until I heard that Ron Howard was making a film starring Chris Hemsworth. Picking up the book, I was engrossed from the very beginning. A haunting and tragic tale, it is also a fascinating look at the island of Nantucket, the whaling culture of the 1800’s, and the men who could do the task of hunting whales around the oceans. The true story also later inspired the American classic Moby-Dick as the only time in history that a whale deliberately sank a ship. What happens next is harrowing–and makes the book impossible to put down.
Dear Bob and Sue by Matt & Karen Smith. After surviving a bought with cancer, a couple from Issaquah, Washington decide to check something off the bucket list: to visit every single one of America’s National Parks. What emerges is less of a “how to” manual and more of a travelogue, written as letters to friends. We experience the wonder of our country’s natural beauty through the eyes of two everyday folks, hear their joys and frustrations, and reflect with them on what has been called “America’s best idea.” It may not be every person’s cup of tea, but as someone who spends every other taking his kids to experience our National Parks, I couldn’t help but smile along–and be inspired.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. In less than two years, architect Daniel Burnham turned unused marshland outside of Chicago into a glittering “White City” for the 1893 World’s Fair. As Larson recounts the story of the development of the fair (including the first Ferris Wheel and many other “firsts”), he also recounts how the creeping anonymity afforded by big cities allowed America to develop its first serial killer. H. H. Holmes operated in the shadow of the White City, and is estimated to have murdered and disposed of anywhere between 27 to 200 people. The book is gruesome in parts, inspiring in others, and shows that many of the elements of 20th century America took root here. Famous people work there way in and out of the story, which lays out not only the future of American crime, but the future of American city planning.
Dream It, Do It: My Half Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms by Marty Sklar. There are many books about Disneyland and Walt Disney, but few of them were written by the man who would start working for Walt before Disneyland existed, and retired in 2012. A truly marvelous account of all things Disney, it shows how even Walt realized that the name had outgrown him as a person and had come to represent a way of thinking, of doing business. It’s not shy about calling out bad ideas by Disney management (Paul Pressler, the former Disney Store President who nearly ran Disneyland into the ground in the 1990’s gets a nice smackdown), but it’s also quick to reveal the heart and humanity behind the greatest theme parks and attractions on earth. Marty knew Disney, wrote “as” Disney, and his retirement leaves a huge vacancy for Walt Disney Imagineering to fill. Luckily we have this book to give us some insights on how to do that.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. In 1860, a three year old boy is found dead in the outhouse of his family’s estate. All the exterior doors and windows to the house are locked. All the interior doors are also bolted shut. So how did this little boy get out of his bed in his nanny’s room and end up dead, throat cut and stabbed, in the outhouse? To help solve this case, Jonathan Whicher, one of the first Inspectors of Scotland Yard, is dispatched and comes to an unheard of conclusion for this time period: someone in the family murdered the little boy. A true story, the book investigates not only the beginnings of modern crime solving, but family relations in Victorian England and the development of modern detective stories. A ripping yarn, all the more amazing because it is true.
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. It’s an extraordinary tale of how America’s great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious plains winds stirred up an endless series of “black blizzards” that were like a biblical plague in what became known as the Dust Bowl. A combination of bad information, bad ecological practices, and economic disaster, the Dust Bowl wasn’t an act of God, but one of man’s own hubris. The story is grounded in portraits of the people who settled the plains: hardy Americans and immigrants desperate for a piece of land to call their own and lured by the lies of promoters who said the ground was arable. Egan’s interviews with survivors produce tales of courage and suffering, and leave an indelible mark on the reader.
Upended: How Following Jesus Remakes Your Words & World by Jedd Medefind & Erik Lokkesmoe. The only “Christian” book on my list, and for good reason. Erik and Jedd are not the best-selling authors of hundreds of “how to” books on how to live as a follower of Christ. Erik is a long-distance friend through my relationship with Different Drummer, his company in New York and Los Angeles, but his book is far better than I expected, and more challenging than I could have hoped. As a pastor who endeavors to help families connect their relationship with God with the real world, I appreciated how easy the book was too read, and even more, helped me realize that the more “connected” we are in our world, the more desperately we need Jesus to remake our worth, our words, our authenticity and ambitions. A fantastic book.
A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Saved Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” by Hobson Woodward. The second book about a seafaring disaster on my list, this one connects several of my favorite things: American history and literature. William Strachey was a poet in 1609 when he joined others on a voyage to the first English colony in America. A massive storm destroyed the ship, stranding them on Bermuda, where they survived for a year and eventually constructed two new boats and made it to the New World. An interesting history in itself, the story gets stranger in that it’s most likely William Shakespeare based his play “The Tempest,” about a shipwreck on a mysterious island, on Strachey’s published journal. Strachey may have never achieved fame, but his story inspired one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The only novel to make the list is one of Dickens’ most dense and absorbing books, which is as relevant today as it was when first published in 1853. An indictment of the legal system at the time, it is a detective story, a love story, and features a cast of characters as dense and deep as any Dickens would ever create again. At 900+ pages, it’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a rewarding read. Not a single superfluous page or sidenote, with every detail of its tightly constructed plot told through Dickens’ own third-person narrator and the first person narration of the female heart of the book, Esther (Dickens’ only female narrator). A tale of the excesses of a bad legal system and the propensity of people to sue each other over the most ridiculous things, with only the lawyers making any money, it’s a timely tale told with Dickens’ characteristic style.
Most surprising? How much I love reading books about history.