“The Return of George Washington” (William Morrow, $16.99) by Edward Larson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History, is a masterful explanation of Washington’s role in shaping the new nation. He was Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War but tired of leadership and retired to Mt. Vernon in 1783. When the Articles of Confederation failed to unite the new nation, Washington yielded to pleas and took a key role in the Constitutional Convention and the elections in which he was named the first President of the United States. His credo: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly as considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
“Congo” (Ecco, $19.99) by David Van Reybrouck sold a half-million copies in hardbound. The book traces the impact of the slave trade, Lord Stanley’s history, the booms in rubber and ivory, colonization, the battle for independence, brutal rule by Mobutu, the boxing battle called “Rumble in the Jungle” which brought the Congo’s role to a whole new generation, and the civil war which began in 1996 and which today marks the Congo as the second most failed nation-state (Somalia being the leader). The portraits of child soldiers, brutal dictators and warlords, slaves, houseboys and servants of the Belgians, and even of Congolese women make this one of the most dynamic books to tackle the complex history of this embattled region.
“Astoria” (Ecco, $15.99) by Peter Stark recounts the attempt to found a new Jamestown on the West Coast. Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor thought the East and West Coast would one day meet as one United States. Astor funded two explorations with money from his fur trade and real estate dealings. Wilson Price Hunt led the Overland Party, traveling along what is now the Oregon Trail. The aim was to set up a global trade network at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The Seagoing Party led by Captain Jonathan Thorn went around the tip of South America and ended its days in a violent encounter. Stark drew his book from the accounts of the men who made these journeys and he also traveled the routes himself. The result is a book which is immediate and vivid and brings this little-known part of American history to life.
`”Water to the Angels” (Ecco, $28.99) by Les Standiford is of particular interest to Western residents as temperatures change and water becomes scarce. Between 1907 and 1913 William Mulholland conceived and built one of the greatest engineering projects of the 20th century: the Los Angeles Aqueduct. His project made a desert of Owens Valley, the once-fertile farmland on the eastern side of the Sierras, and ensured Los Angeles would have a steady supply of water for its rapidly-expanding population. Among the techniques Mulholland popularized were the use of Caterpillar tractors, pumping of concrete through pressurized lines, moving earth with hydraulic lines and the making of 3-D topographical maps. The project actually came in $2 million under its budget.
“The Master of Confessions” (Ecco, $27.99) by Thierry Cruvellier is a journalist’s observation of the trial of Duch, a man who confessed to war crimes under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Pol Pot set up the Democratic Kampuchea, a totalitarian state, in Phnom Penh is April 1975. The Khmer Rouge killed and starved more than two million people. Duch directed S-21, the central prison where people were interrogated and killed. When the Khmer Rouge fell in 2007, Duch failed to destroy the prison archives and thus the crimes came to world attention. The result is a chilling look into the mind and activities of a man who initiated one of modern history’s most horrifying genocides.
“Days of Rage” (Penguin, $29.95) by Bryan Burrough is a look at six of the radical groups active in the early 1970’s. These are The Weather Underground, which bombed the Pentagon; the Black Liberation Army, which assassinated policemen; the Symbionese Liberation Army, best known for kidnapping Patty Hearts; FALN, which killed four people at a Wall Street restaurant; the United Freedom Front, which robbed banks in the Northeast; and The Family, who robbed banks and killed three people in New York. Burrough refers to these collectively as movers of the first “Age of Terror.” The book is based on interviews with surviving members of the group who have never gone on record before about the real goals and activities of the groups.
“Deal with the Devil” (William Morrow, $15.99) by Peter Lance is about Gregory Scarpa Sr. and the deal he made with the FBI to be an informant about Mafia activities. Scarpa ordered more than 50 murders and was a drug dealer, loan shark, hijacker and common thief during the 30 years he served as an informant. FBI files call the association a “deal with the devil” Lance draws on FBI memos from 1980 to present to trace this shameful association.
“Sisters in Law” (Harper, $35.99) by Linda Hirshman is about the impact of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg as Supreme Court justices. Hirshman explains the political and cultural differences of the women, but says this did not prevent them from becoming friends and forging new rights for women in their offices in the highest court in the land. She says Ginsburg’s greatest legacy are the five cases between 1971 to 1981 when she established legal constitutional equality for women. “For O’Connor, it’s a tossup between her brilliant political performances as the perfect digestible centrist woman on the one hand and on the other, sadly, Bush v. Gore,” said Hirshman.
“The Great Fire” (Ecco, $28.99) by Lou Ureneck is a timely story in light of the refugee movement overpowering Europe today. The Turkish Nationalist Army burned Smyrna, Turkey in 1922, concluding a large-scale ethnic and religious cleansing. Greeks and Armenians tried desperately to escape as the soldiers killed and raped Christians and burned the seaport city in what is called the Armenian Genocide. Asa Jennings, an American missionary, came to Smyrna to start a sports program for boys. With U.S. Commander Halsey Powell he assembled a fleet of 50 ships to take refugees to safety.