Got a picky history buff on your list? Here are some personal picks from the M&Q staff, exploring the world from ancient Rome to 1920s America.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss.
General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today, yet his story is strikingly familiar—because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used his larger-than-life feats as inspiration for such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
But, hidden behind General Dumas’s swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: he was the son of a black slave—who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time.
Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas made his way to Paris, where he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution—until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.
Does it get more interesting than that?!
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
In S.P.Q.R., Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, changes our historical perspective, exploring how the Romans themselves challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation, while also keeping her eye open for those overlooked in traditional histories: women, slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and losers. Like the best detectives, Beard separates fact from fiction, myth and propaganda from historical record. She introduces the familiar characters of Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Nero as well as the untold, the loud women, the shrewd bakers, and the brave jokers.
The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher
History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal. The wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon, the Witch of Lime Street came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. An engaging and fun read.
33 Days by Leon Werth
A rare eyewitness account by an important author of fleeing the Nazis’ march on Paris in 1940, featuring a never-before-published introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. As with Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, the journey of the book to publication is in itself an interesting story.
In June of 1940, Leon Werth and his wife fled Paris before the advancing Nazis Army. 33 Days is his eyewitness account of that experience, one of the largest civilian dispacements in history.
Encouraged to write 33 Days by his dear friend, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author ofThe Little Prince, Werth finished the manuscript while in hiding in the Jura mountains.
Saint-Exupéry smuggled the manuscript out of Nazi-occupied France, wrote an introduction to the work and arranged for its publication in the United States by Brentanos. But the publication never came to pass, and Werth’s manuscript would disappear for more than fifty years until the first French edition, in 1992.
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore
This widely acclaimed biography provides a vivid and riveting account of Stalin and his courtiers—killers, fanatics, women, and children—during the terrifying decades of his supreme power. In a seamless meshing of exhaustive research and narrative élan, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives us the everyday details of a monstrous life.
We see Stalin playing his deadly game of power and paranoia at debauched dinners at Black Sea villas and in the apartments of the Kremlin. We witness first-hand how the dictator and his magnates carried out the Great Terror and the war against the Nazis, and how their families lived in this secret world of fear, betrayal, murder, and sexual degeneracy. Montefiore gives an unprecedented understanding of Stalin’s dictatorship, and a Stalin as human and complicated as he is brutal.
There has been a lot of new scholarship on Stalin in recent years, but this biography remains the gold standard according to M&Q’s biggest history buff, Dave.