If you’re interested in expanding your non-fiction reading to include more history this springtime, here are a selection of recently published books covering both national and international events, mass and niche interests, famous and lesser-known individuals, to whet your appetite for learning something new.
Despite initially seeming an unlikely spy, literature graduate and former model Aline Griffith proved to be a dab hand at espionage during World War II. A chance encounter at a dinner party provided the New York native with an opportunity to fulfill her ambition of contributing to the war effort by joining the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and working as a coder in Madrid. From there, her excellent networking and social skills led to her forming connections that were the envy of the more archetypical spies dispatched to Europe by the OSS. Her nose for intrigue and her ear for gossip allowed her to ferret out information from members of the Spanish upper classes that proved vital to the allies. Although it’s clear that some controversy still surrounds Griffith’s war record (there exists documentary evidence concerning her career as a code clerk and an agent runner, but her recollections of more exciting exploits may well have been embroidered), The Princess Spy, Larry Loftis’ account of her extraordinary wartime career, is a work of solid and meticulously researched history. Griffith’s story is an exciting and sometimes almost unbelievable one, but she certainly proved to be a valuable asset for the OSS. Her work as a spy differed significantly from that of the majority of other spies stationed in Europe during World War II, which means that this book provides an insightful account of a unique career in decidedly high-class espionage.
Alison Weir is among the foremost public historians in the United Kingdom. She is particularly well known for writing histories of female royalty, and in Queens of the Crusades: England’s Medieval Queens Book Two, she turns her attention to the first five Plantagenet queens: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Isabella of Angoulême, Alienor of Provence, and Eleanor of Castile. Of the five, Eleanor of Aquitaine is arguably the most (in)famous, so it’s no surprise that the story of her life and times accounts for more than a third of the book. However, the reigns of the other four queens were also characterized by remarkable events, and the book as a whole covers a truly fascinating period of history (1154–1291). Alongside her history books, Weir is also known for writing historical fiction, and her flair for dramatic writing (coupled with the fact that some larger-than-life people and events featured prominently during the period in question) renders this history as sensational and action-packed as a good novel. The characters and exploits of the five queens are brought to the fore and they are finally given the recognition that has been denied them in most prior histories. In addition, considering things from the perspectives of the queens provides Weir with a new lens for examining major events such as the signing of the Magna Carta and the murder of Thomas Becket.
In Trailblazing Women! Amazing Americans Who Made History, Deborah G. Felder provides potted histories of the lives and achievements of around one hundred and twenty extraordinary American women. The women included in the book come from different times, a wide range of backgrounds, and different spheres of life, but they have all made their mark on the world in amazing and long-lasting ways. For example, from the world of politics, Felder includes brief biographies of Madeleine Albright and Michelle Obama, while from the legal sphere, she features Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Leading lights from the music and entertainment industries are also included in the book, such as Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Lucille Ball. Biographies of some great writers are featured too, including Louisa May Alcott and Maya Angelou. While many of the women included in the book remain famous today, some are now far less well known than their achievements warrant, for example, Jane Addams (a pioneering social reformer) and Hattie Elizabeth Alexander (a groundbreaking physician). Trailblazing Women! Amazing Americans Who Made History provides really interesting and insightful accounts of the lives and works of some truly extraordinary women, and reading it will likely prompt readers to seek out further information about the featured women.
Yang Jisheng’s The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution provides a definitive account of one of the most tumultuous periods in modern China’s history, a period during which changes occurred that still have repercussions today. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) marked a turning point in the history of both China itself and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it had devastating social and economic consequences for the Chinese people. Based on both his own experiences and his extensive research, Yang Jisheng ultimately contends that, rather than being a true mass movement that spiraled out of control, the Cultural Revolution was a deliberate attempt to deflect the Chinese public’s discontent toward sources other than the CCP. An exhaustive yet highly readable work, the book is the result of eleven years of research, including sources unavailable to historians outside of China. The scholarship involved in researching and writing The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is all the more impressive given the potential dangers that Yang Jisheng faced due to the criticisms of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution, and the CCP contained within the book.
Arguably, from both the popular perspective and the political, the greatest enemy that the United States faced during the twentieth century was the Soviet Union. The ideologies of the two countries were diametrically opposed, and many within the United States feared that Soviet forces were intent on destabilizing democracy and freedom and so bringing an end to the American Dream. Such fears and the hysteria engendered by them gave rise to so-called Red Scares, including the Rosenberg spy network trial and the McCarthy witch hunts. In A Time of Fear: America in the Era of Red Scares and Cold War, his account of a uniquely paranoid period of American history, Albert Marrin brings the ideas and fears of the time to life and, in doing so, highlights lessons that are still of relevance today. He examines both the prevalent hostility toward the Soviet Union and the aspects of communism that appealed to certain sections of American society, thereby striking a balance between exposing conspiracies and highlighting the truth. It all makes for a very interesting read. The impact of the book’s text is further enhanced by the inclusion of numerous black and white photographs.
Richard Evans’ The History of Tennis: Legendary Champions, Magical Moments offers a comprehensive history of tennis from the birth of the sport through to the major matches and top players of the present day. Packed full of facts, figures, and glossy photographs capturing key events and personalities associated with the game, the book is sure to appeal to both die-hard tennis fans and those interested in learning a bit more about the sport. The history of tennis is a long one, dating back to the time of Henry VIII, and there has seemingly always been great rivalry, controversy, and camaraderie involved in the sport. As a result, there are plenty of intriguing and, sometimes, downright surprising stories to be told. Evans’ clear passion for tennis shines through in his writing about the technicalities of the sport, the famous moments, the infamous faces, and various bits of behind-the-scenes information that he has gleaned during his long career as a tennis journalist. While the book will probably most strongly appeal to those who already have a great deal of interest in tennis (beyond watching the finals of the major tournaments, that is), there is also plenty for the more casual follower of the sport to enjoy.