Books: History List

Taking my cue from Critical Mass, here is my compilation of favorite history, biography, and historical fiction. Criteria for books chosen is thus:

The books chosen must be well written, and one does not need to have a lot of prior background in order to enjoy them —


The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski
This book is a journalism classic. Kapuscinski was a foreign correspondent from Poland during the 60s and 70s, their only foreign correspondent at the time, and he reported on 3rd world revolutions, which are all compiled in this book: Africa in the 60s, Latin America in the 70s. Ethiopia. Angola. Liberia. He used his stories about other totalitarian systems as indirect criticism of the Soviet Union, under which Poland suffered. A great book.

Real Life Drama, by Wendy Smith
This is a well-researched, highly readable, and also pretty damn accurate (according to the various characters involved) story of the formation of the extremely influential (short-lived) Group Theatre, in New York City, during the Great Depression. It’s a sweeping look at the history of New York theatre in the early years of the 20th century. One of my favorites.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West.
Haven’t even finished it yet – but I don’t need to to put it on the list.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William Shirer
I mean. Come on.

All the President’s Men, by Woodward, Bernstein
I have no idea how many times I have read this book, but it’s a lot.


James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann
I agree with Erin. Biographies don’t get much better than this one.

John Adams, by David McCullough
Basically: believe the hype. The book really is that good.

Tom: The Unknown Tennesse Williams
by Lyle Leverich
Fantastic biography of HALF of Tennessee Williams’ life. Sadly, Leverich (the author) died before he could complete the other volumes. This one ends with the opening of Glass Menagerie in New York – the beginning of Williams’ fame. Beautifully written and researched book.

Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg
My obsession with Charles Lindbergh came through my love of his wife’s writing. I had read all of her journals, and I still read them. Berg’s biography of Charles Lindbergh, which set a new high-water-mark for biographers everywhere, is a stunning accomplishment.

Historical Fiction

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
A crazy story set in the time of Napoleon. The 2 main characters are a young innocent French peasant boy, who finds himself, out of nowhere, in the position of personal waiter to Napoleon – and Villanelle – a flaming red-headed Venetian woman, who cross-dresses as a man so that she can work in the casinos. French-boy and Villanell’s paths cross. I love this book – it’s poetic, it’s funny, it’s frightening – it is filled with arresting prose. Winterson has been imitating herself every since and her books are the worse for it.

Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien
I know it’s Vietnam … but that counts as history now, doesn’t it? How far back do you have to go to have it be considered “historical fiction”? Regardless. One of the best novels I have ever read.

Possession, by AS Byatt
I know, I know, half of the book takes place in modern times … but the Victorian era sections are heart-rendingly well done. You are not looking in from the outside. It feels like you get into that world. LOVE. THIS. BOOK.

I’m sure I can think of more.

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5 Responses to Books: History List

  1. CW says:

    Hmmm… Scott Berg’s Lindberg biography has a lot of stuff in it, but what I like about it is there’s a lot more to Lindberg left to publish. Lindberg actually had a lot of secrets, and none of them (as I remember) are in the book.

    Also I think Dame Rebecca rates her own category of book.

  2. Brian Jones says:

    I can’t read non-fiction. I always get lost in the details. But John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “A Maggot” are both amazing evocations of days gone by.

  3. Brian Jones says:

    Fictional. Fictional evocations.

  4. dad says:

    Dearest: I was about to post a comment and saw that Brian Jones had already suggested French Lt’s Woman. I could not agree more. One of the best screenplay adaptions EVER, is Pinter’s on this. love, dad

  5. Sasha Castel says:

    Sheila, perhaps this comes too late, but be sure to avoid the film version of “Posession”. I haven’t read the book, but I can’t imagine the film does it any justice. Ick.

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