The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel EllsbergWhat it's about: Author Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers) recounts his role in the RAND Corporation's 1960s study of the U.S. policy on nuclear strikes. Framed as a memoir, The Doomsday Machine explains how the nuclear policy developed, its flaws (which continue to the present), and the urgency of reducing the availability of nuclear weapons.
Why you'll want to read it: This sobering and thought-provoking book shines a spotlight on issues that have become more prominent since North Korea started demonstrating their missile capabilities.
It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree by A.J. JacobsWhat it's about: A global adventure in family tree-climbing, Esquire contributing editor A.J. Jacobs' engaging study of genealogy and genetics provides often startling insight into tradition, clannishness, and individual identity.
Is it for you? This peripatetic approach to individual family history and the history of human beings offers laugh-out-loud humor and intriguing information, whether you're interested in genealogy or hadn't given it a second thought.
Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O'DonnellWhat it's about: Host of The Last Word on MSNBC and advisor to U.S. Senate committees Lawrence O'Donnell became fascinated with politics at age 17 when he observed the 1968 general elections. Here he reviews the tumultuous political year and the race that captivated him.
Is it for you? Whether you remember 1968 yourself or know it from history, you'll enjoy the ringside seat O'Donnell offers in Playing with Fire.
Further reading: For general background on the 1960s, pick up Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin's America Divided.
Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom by Russell ShortoWhat it's about: Drawing on his subjects' diaries and correspondence as well as official records and other sources, historian Russell Shorto highlights the ideals of the American Revolutionary period by vividly portraying six individuals of the time.
Why it's significant: Revolution Song presents history through personal life stories, offering a closeup of both social life and political philosophy. He adds power to his narrative by connecting the individuals' concerns to vital issues of our time.
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen ThorpeWhat it's about: Author Helen Thorpe spent a year immersed in the lives of recently arrived high-schoolers who could speak no English when they started school. She empathetically depicts 22 refugee teenagers and their English Language Acquisition teacher.
Important aspects: Thorpe portrays the students' traumatic passages to the U.S., the complexities of assimilating into American culture, and the teacher's ability to create community in his classroom.
Why it's significant: The Newcomers spotlights people directly concerned with the political hot topic of immigration.
Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack CheeversWhat it's about: In January 1968, at the height of the Cold War, North Korean gunboats surrounded an American spy ship in international waters, took the crew prisoner, and made off with a boatload of top-secret documents. The incident of the USS Pueblo became an embarrassment for President Lyndon Johnson's administration and a cause célèbre for conservative politicians.
Why you might like it: This is a well-researched and thrilling account. Espionage buffs, aficionados of Cold War history, and those concerned about current U.S.-North Korea relations shouldn't miss Act of War.
The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853 by Edward DolnickWhat it's about: The California Gold Rush, which was kicked off by the discovery of gold in January 1848 at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California.
Who will want to read it: American history buffs, those interested in financial history, and readers who appreciate vivid details of an exciting time.
Nuggets: Savvy business owners made their fortunes by selling provisions and accommodations to those with Gold Rush Fever.
Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe by George FriedmanBackground: The Treaty of Rome authorized the formation of the European Economic Community, effective January 1, 1958. This grew into today's European Union.
Why it's significant: Intelligence expert George Friedman discusses the global stresses that threaten European stability and key flashpoints within Europe. He traces centuries of Europe's social and intellectual history and examines the fragile structure of the EU.
Further reading: Take a look at Belgian Guy Verhofstadt's Europe's Last Chance, which argues for a strong federal European democracy.
Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles SpencerWhat it's about: What happens to the king-killers when the king's heir is restored to the throne? That's what historian Charles Spencer explores in Killers of the King, which recounts the execution of Britain's King Charles I on January 30, 1649. After he became King, Charles II showed no mercy on the 59 men who signed Charles I's death warrant.
Why you might like it: This detailed history illuminates the lives and political motives of the regicides, many of them now forgotten.
Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss; translated by Neil BermelWhat it is: A personal record of the Holocaust by one of the few survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which was destroyed in January 1945 just before Soviet troops arrived. Helga Weiss' diary depicts the frantic efforts of Nazi administrators to shuttle captive Jews to a functioning camp in the face of Allied advances.
What sets it apart: Begun when Weiss was eight years old, the diary depicts a child's-eye view of the Holocaust, from a Prague bomb shelter in 1938 to the end of World War II. It concludes with a 2011 interview with the author.
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