The English and Their History (Robert Tombs)
At almost 900 pages of text followed by copious notes, this certainly qualifies as a doorstopper. But that shouldn’t put you off. Chronological organization and accessible prose combine to make it the kind of book that you can drop in and out of, even entirely discarding periods that don’t interest you.
Mind you, there probably won’t be too many that fit into the latter category. While the author, Robert Tombs, has hitherto specialised in 19th century France, he shows a keen sense for the warp and woof of English history, taking in the full sweep from circa 600 up to the present day. Even if you already know a fair bit about the topic, the chances are that you’ll find new facts and insights.
For instance, the chapter on Victorian England describes an era that was more complex than is often portrayed, and one that has left an immense intellectual, technological and physical legacy. As Professor Tombs puts it, the “bricks and mortar” of the era – cities, roads, sewers, viaducts, and so forth – constitute a large part of 21st century England’s infrastructure.
Being Nixon: A Man Divided (Evan Thomas)
Of the many Nixon books available, this is among the very best. While the author, Evan Thomas, may be a man with impeccable liberal credentials, he doesn’t deliver the sort of hatchet job that one might expect. But don’t worry, it’s not hagiography either.
Instead, we get Nixon in the round, a man who was simultaneously in love with books and disdainful of intellectuals, a cynic and an idealist, a risk-taking visionary and the pettiest of grievance-mongers.
If premier league politics is an arena best suited for the charismatically gifted or the blue-blooded, you have to wonder how someone as awkward, introverted and low-born as Nixon could have possibly competed. But compete he certainly did, scaling the summit despite repeated setbacks.
Stephen Harper (John Ibbitson)
You may think you know everything there’s to know about Canada’s 22nd prime minister, but I’ll bet that John Ibbitson’s comprehensive and scrupulously fair biography will still surprise you in places.
For example, did you know that the Harper government supported an underground railroad to spirit Iranian gays and lesbians to Canada, promptly granting them refugee status? I suspect you didn’t.
The man who beat Napoleon is invariably remembered in military terms. After all, winning at Waterloo was a hard act to follow. But as the second volume of Rory Muir’s biography attests, there was more to him than that.
Muir is an Australian academic who’s devoted 30 years to the study of all things Wellington, and the level of erudition shows. Granted, the writing style doesn’t make it a rapid page-turner, but for those with an interest in either Wellington or the period, it’s engrossing stuff.
Post-Waterloo, Wellington became a politician, even serving as prime minister, in which capacity he shepherded Catholic Emancipation past a resisting George III and the opposition of significant segments of his own party. And although pushing 60 in age, he even fought a duel in the process!
The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991 (Robert Service)
Robert Service is an English historian who’s been writing about Soviet communism since the late 1970s, in the course of which he’s become no stranger to controversy. So far, though, his new book about the Cold War’s demise has attracted terms like “authoritative” and “riveting.”
Drawing heavily from archival research, Service paints vivid pictures of the main players, described by one reviewer as “two kings and two knights on a sprawling international chessboard.” The reference, of course, is to Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, with Eduard Shevardnadze and George Shultz as their chief helpers.
There’s lots to chew on here, particularly the details about the disagreements within the Kremlin. It may have been a one-party government that kept a tight lid on internal divisions, but by the final years of the Soviet Union, those divisions were real.
Well, there you have it, Christmas shopping suggestions to satisfy the history buff on your list. Panic averted, job done!
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.