June 12, 2024

5 books that dads will love

Dads are notoriously difficult to shop for. For Father’s Day, we recommend five dad-worthy history books, including the latest from Erik Larson, a biography of John Lewis, the story of the space shuttle Challenger and more.

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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.
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There’s no such thing as a spoiler alert when a story’s subject is taught in most every American history class across the country. Injecting hold-your-breath suspense into a narrative history, particularly one in which we already know the story’s ending, is a task that Erik Larson has mastered. In the Garden of the Beasts took on Nazi Germany on the cusp of war; The Splendid and the Vile explored Winston Churchill’s stewardship of under-siege England. In his new book, The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, Larson turns his attention to the immediate aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the unlanced boil where the war began: Fort Sumter.

Larson covers just a few months of American history—but perhaps the most consequential few months. Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and other well-known figures from the period play key roles, but so too do a British journalist on assignment, a young private stuck in the besieged fort and a Southern society woman watching the events unfold. They aren’t key characters in the grand arc of the Civil War or the country’s history, but they did write a lot down. Their accounts help Larson propel the narrative without relying entirely on the stories of people who have already been the subject of hundreds or thousands of other books.

There are obvious parallels to the current moment: a refusal to accept the results of a presidential election, threats to march on the Capitol, a tendency toward civility and appeasement in the face of existential threat and other more subtle links to the present. Some of the connections are unavoidable and necessary; others, Larson perhaps injects as a result of recency bias.

Even after a century and a half of books about the subject, it remains remarkably unclear what course of action key figures should or could have taken to avoid America’s bloodiest war. Maybe we’ll never figure that out, but The Demon of Unrest is a damn good read.

In The Demon of Unrest, Erik Larson crafts a tale of hold-your-breath suspense about the crucial three months leading up to the Civil War.
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June 1939: British naval sub HMS Thetis sinks in sea trials. Ninety-nine people die. August 1942: Allied forces raid the coastal town of Dieppe in German-occupied France. Thousands are killed, captured or wounded, in part because coastal scouting was minimal. September 1942: British-manned torpedoes attack German battleship Tirpitz. All crewmen are captured or killed. Catastrophes have a way of concentrating the mind: Do it right next time. Luckily for the Allies in World War II, a group of scientists in London risked their lives in secret pressure chamber “dives” to give future underwater and amphibious missions better odds.

Author Rachel Lance is a biomedical engineer and blast injury specialist who has worked on underwater equipment for the U.S. Navy, making her unusually suited to unveil the forgotten story of these scientists in Chamber Divers: The Untold Story of the D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever.

Their project at University College London was led by J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant, annoying eccentric who hired scientists shunned by others, among them Jewish refugees, women and Communist sympathizers. As the bombs in the Blitz exploded around them, these scientists subjected themselves again and again to dangerous pressure in chambers that simulated deep underwater dives in order to design more effective breathing equipment for submarine crews, frogmen and torpedo riders.

Relying on their experiment notes, Lance takes us inside the metal tubes where scientists suffered life-threatening injuries. She explores their backgrounds and relationships, which included a love affair between Haldane and research colleague Helen Spurway. And she ranges throughout combat zones to show us the dangers of underwater action, from the perspective of individual combatants on both sides. But Lance’s singular strength is her lucid explanations of the complex science behind the experiments, making it accessible to untrained readers. Lance also uncovers the combination of official secrecy, prejudice against outsiders and bureaucratic skullduggery that obscured this story until now.

Lance begins her book with the Dieppe disaster and ends with D-Day—an Allied triumph that might have gone badly wrong without the chamber divers’ dedication and resilience. Chamber Divers is a necessary reminder that not all war heroes were on the front lines.

In Chamber Divers, Rachel Lance uncovers the Navy scientists who risked their lives to improve the odds of underwater and amphibious missions in World War II.
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With its near 500-page count and robust endnotes, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq might at first glance scare off readers who haven’t sniffed a textbook in years. But thanks to Steve Coll’s crisp and dynamic prose, what’s between the covers feels little like an academic tome.

Despite appearances, The Achilles Trap is not really an Iraq War book (just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is not really a 9/11 book). Yes, you get there eventually, but Coll, like Wright, has more to say about the years leading up to that cataclysm. The narrative details Saddam’s upbringing, rise to power and entrenchment as a key strongman in the Middle East, sometimes allied with the United States and sometimes its biggest pain in the ass—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the two decades since the American invasion of Iraq began, Saddam Hussein has become a sort of caricature. Here, Coll reintroduces the dictator to an audience that has either forgotten his nuances or never knew them. There is unimaginable cruelty, family drama and even comedy—like when Saddam sets out on a career as a historical romance novelist just a few years before his death.

Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and a longtime journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, has a special combination of mostly unrelated skill sets that eludes so many narrative nonfiction writers: He’s a groundbreaking reporter and researcher who is able to uncover new information in a tightly wound arena, but also a deft stylist with a natural gift for both narrative structure and fluent yet surprising writing. Like a baseball player who can both pitch and hit with the best, the rare union places Coll at or near the apex of the craft.

Detailing Saddam’s own cruelty does not mean Coll lets the U.S. off the hook, though. Sprinkled among what is at times a tense political thriller are scenes of astounding myopia, hubris, miscommunication, dark hypocrisy, betrayal, stupidity, cruelty and violence of our own. Though the events of The Achilles Trap concluded 20 years ago, there are few better roadmaps to where American foreign policy in the Middle East has ended up today.

With agile prose, groundbreaking reporting and narrative splendor, The Achilles Trap is a gripping history of the Iraq War.

Like his mentor Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis had a dream. Amid the turmoil and violence of a segregated South and a nation embroiled in the struggle for racial reconciliation, Lewis envisioned and championed what he called a “Beloved Community” in America, “a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.” In his captivating John Lewis: In Search of Beloved Community, Raymond Arsenault narrates the mesmerizing story of Lewis’ evolution from a Civil Rights activist to an eminent congressman who never lost sight of his vision for a just and equitable society.

Drawing on archival materials and interviews with Lewis and his friends, family and associates, Arsenault traces Lewis from his childhood in Troy, Alabama, where he daily witnessed the indignities and violence of racial segregation. Steeled and inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he entered American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and began his storied activism in earnest. Lewis and his contemporaries incorporated the principles of rightness and righteousness—what their teacher James Lawson called “soul force”—with methods of nonviolent resistance. Arsenault documents Lewis’ participation in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Selma to Montgomery marches and his advocacy for the Voting Rights Act. After King’s 1968 assassination, Lewis’ optimism turned to despair; he had a feeling, Arsenault writes, that “maybe, just maybe, we would not overcome.”

But that didn’t last. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis went to Washington with a legacy to uphold and a commitment to carry on the spirit, goals and principles of nonviolence and social action. He was always disillusioned by self-serving politicians and their infighting, and he devoted his career to building coalitions among opponents. In a 2020 speech, Lewis uttered the remarks that cemented his legacy: “We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. . . . Go out there, speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

With John Lewis Arsenault offers the first comprehensive biography of the icon and serves as a fitting bookend to Lewis’ own autobiography, Walking With the Wind. The work provides an inspiring portrait of a man whose vision and moral courage propelled him to share his belief in the Beloved Community and inspire generations.

Raymond Arsenault’s mesmerizing biography of John Lewis chronicles the life of the Civil Rights icon and congressman whose vision of a just and equitable society has inspired generations.

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