Please suggest great but lesser-known non-fiction to give my dad.
June 30, 2014 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Like many dads he reads mostly non-fiction books with a historical, military, political and/or transportation focus. But he seems to have read them all.

When I say "all"... figure that anything in the last 40-50 years that might have been a front page review in the NYT book review or NYRB... if he'd be interested then he's probably read it. Robert Caro, John Keegan, Barbara Tuchman, John MacPhee, etc. I want to find some hidden gems that are below that level of recognition.

The above topics are only a rough guide but hopefully they give a flavor for what he likes. Probably not gonna work: sociology, culture, religion, music, health, nature, design, personal memoirs. Hard sciences, maybe.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by neat graffitist to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a weird one, and it's not even non-fiction, but it was so good! Watergate, a novel Enjoyed the HELL out of it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was really, really good.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:12 AM on June 30, 2014

I was given Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy as a gift from a major history buff, and enjoyed it a great deal! Not sure if it's popular enough that your dad would have read it already, though.
posted by losvedir at 7:14 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ok, so here's the NY Times review, but if he hasn't read The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, he really should. It isn't obviously in the camp of history, military, politics, or transportation so your father may have skipped it. But the concept of information has so much applicability to those realms that will be immediately obvious once he gets started.
posted by postel's law at 7:20 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

As I always do, I recommend In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. I also enjoyed Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook, Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
posted by jeather at 7:30 AM on June 30, 2014

King Leopold's Ghost ?
posted by mmiddle at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just finished Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Journey about the 1914 expedition.

It's an oldie but a goodie that he may not have had the pleasure of reading yet.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your father's reading tastes are a lot like my partner's. Check out The Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present. I found this one by asking a Polish history buff and would recommend it for your father too.

If you can identify a particular slice of history that your father likes and then look through offerings from the major university presses you will find some likely books, although I would google for reviews to make sure it is not just someone's dissertation with covers slapped on it, but something with an actual narrative. I have bought stacks of books for my partner in this way and he enjoys them.

Sadly, The Great War and Modern Memory doesn't seem to be something everyone's read anymore. If you are not sure whether he's read it, just buy it. Then if he's already read it, he can give it to you.
posted by BibiRose at 7:36 AM on June 30, 2014

Seconding The Great War and Modern Memory and most of the books by Nathaniel Philbrick.

I can recommend

Thunder Below! by Eugene Fluckey.

Beyond The Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner

Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose
posted by gudrun at 7:48 AM on June 30, 2014

If he has not read Henry Petroski, he might like him. He writes a lot about engineering topics in a somewhat approachable but definitely not pop-culture way. I'm reading To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure right now and I have also liked

- The Toothpick: Technology and Culture
- Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and The Spanning of America
- The Book on the Bookshelf (history of bookshelves!)
- Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering
posted by jessamyn at 8:06 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seeing as this is the 100th anniversary of WWI.
Dark Tide: Boston's Molasses flood.
The great Influenza The 1918 Spanish flu. great back history on medicine and virology.
The Curse of the Narrows: The 1917 Halifax explosion.
posted by Gungho at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hard Road West - Gold Rush history and geology

Blue Babe: The Story of a Steppe Bison Mummy from Ice Age Alaska and the subsequent Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - travelogue and history of the Balkans just before WWII
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:44 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Postwar by Tony Judt is one the best book I've ever read about WWI/II effects on post-1945 history as well as the history of the Cold War. Mostly Europe-centric, it's quite illuminating on how Europe emerged to what it is today.
Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of WWII follows the true lives of several individuals in Europe during 1945, beyond the end of the war (by Davis Stafford)
Six Days of War (June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East) by Michael Obren will be terrifyingly illuminating for anyone interested in the modern situation.
Japan's Longest Day by the Pacific War Research Society is about the lead up to the surrender of Japan, as told by the Japanese involved.
The Hawk and the Dove by Nicolas Thompson follows two friend-colleagues, Paul Nitze and George Kennan, and their influence on policy during the Cold War
The Illustrious Dead about typhus and Napoleon's march to Russia is great and will turn some of the notions be might have about that invasion upside down.
Rebels: the Irish Uprising of 1916 by Peter de Rosa is about just that, without the "romance" of rebellion, and includes the story of the German role in it.
Budapest 1900 by John Lukas explores the explosive growth of Budapest at the end of the 19th century and the seeds of what happens in Europe later on.
Safe Area Gorazde: the war in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95 by Joe Sacco is a graphic novel along the lines of Maus and has the same potential to haunt one.

Books he may have read:
The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust is hands down the best book about I've ever read about the Civil War and how dealing with the deaths created parts of modern America.

It's quite possible he's read James T. Patterson's books about the USA post WWI as part of the Oxford History of the U.S. but if he hasn't they're wonderful.
Grand Expectations: 1945-1974
Restless Giant: from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore
posted by barchan at 9:20 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sinister Twilight: The Fall of Singapore by Noel Barber explained so much for me.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:15 AM on June 30, 2014

"Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City"

The book tells the story of Henry Ford, the richest man in the world in the 1920s, and his attempt to build a rubber plantation and a miniature Midwest factory town deep in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

posted by Rumple at 10:25 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey, your dad is my dad! He's a hard person to buy gifts for, because books are the only thing he likes and half the time he gets to them before you can gift them.

Anyway, I bought him Young Stalin for Father's Day and he had never heard of it and told me yesterday how much he loved it. So that's my vote.
posted by gerstle at 10:52 AM on June 30, 2014

Here's a remarkable WWI-book he might have missed: "The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War" by Peter Englund.
posted by Petersondub at 2:11 PM on June 30, 2014

A few non-fiction books I've enjoyed that seem to be lesser-known:

Those Angry Days by Lynne Olsen tells the story of the fight for the US' entry into WWII. It's comprehensive and fair to both sides of the argument. Neither FDR nor Charles Lindberg look good upon review of their actions.

The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham is World War II told through the lens of food production, empire building, and life on the home front. The relative comfort of the US and England doesn't seem so bad compared to the nightmare in Germany or the (unknown to me) famine in India and Greece.

I don't know if this too closely resembles a memoir, but The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer is an excellent, brutal recounting of a Nazi soldier's experience on the Eastern Front in WWII.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, well, the history of just that. The level of detail of the bombs as described in the book is intense, but I was astounded by this book. It goes into great detail to describe the lives of the scientists on the Manhattan project as well as the efforts in Germany and Russia to build the bomb.

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen follows Magellan on his circumnavigation of the world. Beyond the interminable first hundred pages of the book detailing territorial claims in the Western Hemisphere, it's a good story.
posted by Turkey Glue at 6:01 PM on June 30, 2014

Somehow I failed to post what I had typed in: Robert K. Massie's books "Dreadnaught" and its continuation, "Castles of Steel." The first book is a history of 19th Century England and Germany, with a focus on foreign adventures and on the evolution of the Navy from wood to steel, coal to oil, and the development of HMS Dreadnaught, the first true battleship deserving of the name. It ends at 1914, where "Castles" picks up with a complete narrative of the Naval aspects (only!) of WWI, including the influence of radio on sea power, the flight of Von Spee from Tsingtao to Coronel, the Navy's view of Gallipoli, and of course Jutland. Together these books are magnificent.

I also second the Rhodes atomic bomb history, as well as its sequel, "The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb."
posted by Sunburnt at 10:24 PM on June 30, 2014

Not sure if this would be considered too popular or too close to a memoir, but I thought The Haldeman Diaries was absolutely fascinating.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:47 PM on June 30, 2014

I often recommend We Die Alone, because it's an oldie but often overlooked.
posted by RedEmma at 2:10 PM on July 1, 2014

Seconding Turkey Glue's recommendation of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and I'd add its sequel, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. (Which also covers the Soviet nuclear program and the espionage that helped to feed it.)

I'd also recommend Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War, which is excellent. (Not sure if he'd have read it already, but it did receive the Cheltenham Prize, which is for books which have "received less acclaim than they deserved". So that's promising.)
posted by McCoy Pauley at 9:21 PM on July 1, 2014

I really enjoyed A Dawn Like Thunder by Robert J. Mrazek, but I don't know how well known it is. He may already have seen Between Silk & Cyanide by Leo Marks -- it's neat though, because it can tell more about the codebreaking because so much of the information has been declassified now. (And memail me if he likes personal memoirs about war; I've read a number of great ones.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:51 PM on July 1, 2014

The Island at the Center of the World is an interesting history of New Amsterdam and its influence on the British colonies, echoing down to the present. (New York's liberal roots go right back to the Dutch Enlightenment.)

For transportation history, as long as we're on New York try 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York.
posted by Quietgal at 10:07 PM on July 1, 2014

1066 by David Howarth. I really, really liked it - really well researched and very engaging.
posted by kristi at 10:28 AM on July 2, 2014

Longitude by Dava Sobel.
"To find the longitude" was once equivalent to "To go faster than light" or "To square the circle," i.e., impossible. Until a self-taught outcast made it possible.

Young Men and Fire by Norman McLean.
There were four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and young men. A riveting tale of the first smokejumpers, their tragedy, and the turmoil that followed.

This thread is great! Thanks for starting it.
posted by LonnieK at 4:45 PM on July 2, 2014

Two random older books that are good to look for if you're looking in older book places.

1. The Long Lonely Leap - about the guy who went up to 102,000 feet and jumped from a balloon, a record that stood until 2012. Hard to find. Worth it.

2. The Last of the Bush Pilots - just a great book about another era and sort of about the end of that era, when bush piloting was the way people got around a lot of Alaska
posted by jessamyn at 6:42 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

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