Grouchy Historians Favorite Books of 2013

So, as the year comes to a close, I thought I would highlight my favorite books of the year.

It has been an outstanding year for military history in general, and World War II and Civil War history in particular.  Of course the continuing 150th anniversary remembrance of the Civil War certainly helps, and the upcoming centennial of World War I promises what I hope will be a fruitful year of excellent scholarship.

  • Rick Atkinson's book was the CLEAR favorite of mine this year.  His entire Liberation Trilogy is simply magnificent and deserves a prime place on your World War II book shelf.  My review at the New York Journal of Books  (NYJB) (my new awesome friends for free books!) was my very first, and I liked this book more than Chris Matthews loves Obama!Ok, political snark, sorry...Anyway, if you have not read the entire Trilogy, you should, Atkinson has won numerous awards for his history, including a well deserved Pulitzer Prize, and you will find out why when you dive into these volumes.
  • Allen Guelizo managed to take a very well trod subject, the Battle of Gettysburg, and turn it into my second favorite book of the year.  My review noted how much I actually LEARNED from this book that I did not know about the battle, including the remarkable analysis that the Union Army was never really in danger from Pickett's Charge, but was nearly undone by Dan Sickle's ego and tactical blundering on the 2nd day of the battle.  I have many Gettysburg books, some inherited from my father-in-law with his hand-written notes in the margins, but for a single volume history, this book gives some serious competition to Stephen Sears, my other favorite Gettysburg historian.
  • World War I is probably one of the most ignored wars in American history. This is somewhat understandable since the U.S. did not enter the war until very late and our contributions to the seminal event of the 20th century were quickly lost on the events of the Great Depression and World War II.  Nonetheless, for anyone who wants to understand how the events of the 20th century played out...understanding the events of 1914 are crucial.  Sir Max Hastings has been a prolific author of military history for over 30 years and he wrote one of the best books on World War I of the year, in my humble opinion.  As I note in my review at the NYJB, the generals and politicians had no real concept of what a general European War would look like or how events would unfold and they quickly lost control of what they thought would be a short and decisive war.  Although each military had detailed plans and elaborate alliances, as Von Moltke noted, none of them survived the actual test of combat.  Sir Max does a marvelous job of showing exactly what happened across Europe in 1914 and provides his usual sharp analysis of the many, many blunders committed by all sides.

My one fiction book was kind of an unusual choice, but since there were no Monster Hunter books this year, I went with my favorite genre of science fiction--alternate history.  Peter Tsouras has been one of my favorite authors, or should I say compilers of alternate military history.  I have read nearly all of his anthologies on World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil War and they have some really good speculative scenarios.  Disaster at Stalingrad is one of his few full length novels, and it is really very good.  He picks an unusual event for his point of departure (as alt hist geeks know, this is the event that changes history and begins the alternate story line) but it is quite realistic, and the decision trees that follow are also scary in their realism.  As I have stated many times, too many people, being poorly educated in history, have no idea how close our history in America, and even Christian civilization came to being totally different.  As the old saying goes "for want of a nail..." and this is certainly true of events such as the Second World War.  This book was fascinating in its premise and very well executed.

So those are my favorite books for the year.  I read many good and some mediocre books this year, but for the most part, I was pleased with my selections.  Hopefully 2014 will bring more good books....many of which are even now sitting in my library......