Summer Reading - Historical
July 12, 2019 5:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a good history book to recommend to my book club. However, it's summer and we finished a few really dense books and everyone is lagging so I thought I'd see if there was a good, gripping read that would be almost good for "poolside" reading.

Bonus points if the author is female or of a type other than a white, American, hetero, male.
posted by amanda to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I haven’t yet read Oyinkan Braithwaite’s novel My Sister the Serial Killer only because my current book is taking so long—but it meets your criteria, my best friend looooved it and couldn’t put it in my hands fast enough, and the review on IndieBound calls it “fast, funny, and completely engrossing”.
posted by stellaluna at 5:59 PM on July 12, 2019

Oh, I’m sorry! I completely missed the part about HISTORY book! Mods, feel free to delete!
posted by stellaluna at 6:00 PM on July 12, 2019

Boom Town by Sam Anderson. No bonus points, but a good book (I thought).
posted by PistachioRoux at 6:09 PM on July 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

If historical memoir is OK, I’d suggest West With the Night by Beryl Markham. Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.
posted by FencingGal at 6:09 PM on July 12, 2019

I just read It Ended Badly by Jennifer Wright, in which she looks at 13 bad breakups from Nero in Rome to Eddie Fisher. It’s fun, interesting, mostly historical. It’s written in a chatty conversational tone which pairs well with the material so it’s a fast read, I finished it within 24 hours of checking it out of the library. It also has some very funny descriptions, during one chapter I was laughing so hard I had to put the book down. I would definitely read it again by a pool.
posted by lepus at 6:12 PM on July 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

Anything by Erik Larson. Larson writes history that often seems like fiction. My favorite is The Devil in the White City, about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but also about a serial killer in Chicago at the same time. Another great one is Thunderstruck, about Marconi and Crippen.
posted by ubiquity at 6:14 PM on July 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

I suggest these history books as great reads with lots to talk about:
The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum
River of Doubt by Candice Millard
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
posted by TrarNoir at 6:20 PM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown is great narrative nonfiction! Describes the members of 1936 US Olympic crew team, their training, their Olympic experience in Hitler’s Berlin... it is so good! I knew absolutely nothing about crew when I started the book, and I was pretty riveted. (No bonus points, though)
posted by bookmammal at 6:22 PM on July 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ooohhh—on preview, another book by Candice Millard called Destiny of the Republic about James Garfield’s assassination—it goes into political history, medical history, science, inventions—another GREAT narrative nonfiction read! (And bonus points for a female author)

Another thought—what about The Library Book by Susan Orlean? Fascinating, highly readable history of the Los Angeles County library system, plus a true crime mystery about library arson. This was one of the best nonfiction books I read last year! I can definitely picture myself reading this at the beach!
posted by bookmammal at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

The assassination discussion brought to mind the work of Sarah Vowell. You could do Assassination Vacation or The Wordy Shipmates, or something else.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:08 PM on July 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

Code Girls by Liza Mundy is about the U.S. female code breakers of WWII. It’s fascinating.
posted by Sukey Says at 7:33 PM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold about the lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. I read it at the beach and thought it was fascinating.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:12 PM on July 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

My book group read "Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann- about the Osage nation and their discovery of oil, the murders of those same people, and the creation of the FBI because up until that point there were no interstate law enforcement organization. The last part of the book is about Grann's research and discoveries he made while doing it. It is one of the best historical narrative nonfiction books I have read.
posted by momochan at 8:25 PM on July 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

You might consider The Vinyl Frontier, about the project in 1977 to create a playlist of music and sounds to accompany NASA’s Voyager probe into space.
posted by gudrun at 8:33 PM on July 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Does it have to be deep history? Bad Blood is written by a man (John Carreyrou) about a very fascinating woman, over a period from 2003-2015. It involves lots of historically important figures, and it's one of the most insane books I've read in recent years. I kept pausing and looking over the book at my husband to say, "you won't believe this..."

Family Properties by Beryl Satter, about the systematic robbery of black families in Chicago via the real estate market, is gripping, especially when you get to the parts where the families start trying to organize and fight back.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 9:06 PM on July 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Secret History of Wonder Woman?
posted by hollyholly at 10:07 PM on July 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Endurance, Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage pretty much reads itself (the hardcover has much more & better photography if such a thing is your fancy), as does Shackelton’s Forgotten Expedition: The Voyage of the Nimrod.

Also, I will never cease recommending In The Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - perhaps the best historical non-fiction I’ve ever read, outside of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:05 AM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale. It’s about one of the very first cases investigated by Scotland Yard. It’s gripping; Summerscale is a very good writer and the narrative gallops along.

Warning: it’s about the gruesome murder of a child, so proceed with caution.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:35 AM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's older (2008), but Jennifer 8 Lee's "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" was a nice casual read about the history of Chinese food in America.
posted by cobaltnine at 2:58 AM on July 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I just finished reading "Island People" by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro a few weeks ago. The author is a white guy, but it's about the Caribbean, and race is one of the primary focuses. It's good history (it was adapted from a Ph.D. dissertation), but it's also quite breezy and readable. The subject matter makes it especially appropriate for summer or poolside reading.

"Boom Town" was recommended above; it's dazzling.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:45 AM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Electric Koolaid Acid Test or The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:14 AM on July 13, 2019

Lost Kingdom centers around Hawaii's Queen Lili’uokalani. It's not a short book by any means, and there is quite a bit of detail but the biographical aspect made it a quick, compelling read for me. I read it, turned around and read Lili’uokalani's own memoir on which a lot of the book is based. It's public domain and downloadable in multiple places.

If you are a books and wine type of group, maybe one of the burgeoning field of wine + history books, such as The Widow Cliquot.
posted by BibiRose at 7:50 AM on July 13, 2019

My book group read Astoria which is about Thomas Jefferson & John Jacob Astor's attempt to build a fur trading empire on the Oregon Coast in the early 1800's. We're in the Portland (Oregon) Metro area, so it was interesting from a local history point of view as well as just an interesting story.

We also read Destiny of the Republic and enjoyed it a lot.
posted by elmay at 2:25 PM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Is a historical novel ok? If so, how about Golden Hill By Francis Spufford!
I’m really not a fan of historical novels but I LOVED this book.
posted by exceptinsects at 8:42 PM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a historical book but also a graphic novel and also a memoir: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. Very readable and will provide plenty for discussion, it’s the author’s recollection of growing up during the change in regime from the Shah to the Ayatollah after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:34 AM on July 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you're open to non-American history, I read Last Boat out of Shanghai by Helen Zia earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It is centered on four individuals who find themselves in Shanghai in the chaotic year of 1949, when the Communists are set to take Shanghai and the rest of China, and how they decide to flee or go into exile or stay behind.

Reads very easily (it's not academic history by any means and doesn't require any previous knowledge of Chinese history) and I found myself staying up quite late to finish it.
posted by andrewesque at 6:49 AM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock is a great, gripping book about more recent history. Would give you plenty to talk about. I used to assign this book when I taught classes in literary journalism and students were hooked.
posted by young_simba at 10:55 AM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

(there's several millennia of history involved, interwoven with modern stuff)
posted by queen anne's remorse at 6:02 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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