Smart Reads: 5 Fascinating Books that Shed a Fresh Light on History

For some reason, late winter is the most historical time of the year. President’s Day. Martin Luther King Day. Black History Month. Women’s History Month. Maybe it’s because we need some really smart reads to tide us over until the daffodils bloom. If history, or fiction-driven retellings based on history, is your jam, we’ve got just the thing. Here are five fascinating books that will make you wish for a snow storm to give you a day off so you can curl up and read.

Max Baer & The Star of David by Jay Neugeboren (Mandel Vilar Press; February 11, 2016)

61rYEZAE-bL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_B-emblem“Neugeboren has never been better than in this lush, joyful novel—as erotic and mysterious as The Song of Songs and as clear as a heavyweight champion’s punch in the gut. I loved it.” —Robert Lipsyte, An Accidental Sportswriter

In June 1933, American heavyweight boxer Max Baer defeated Hitler’s golden boy, German heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. Baer, who was only a quarter Jewish, projected his defiance by wearing a Star of David on his trunks—a symbol he retained for the rest of his boxing career. Baer was the boxing superstar of his time, embraced by the public and female movie stars, feared by opponents (he is said to be responsible for two boxing-related deaths) and a fixture in movies and vaudeville. Neugeboren captures the life of Baer in the style of E.L. Doctorow with a novel retelling narrated by two compelling fictionalized characters who break the color barrier of their time. A fascinating examination of a forgotten legend.

 

Sin, Sex and Subversion: How What was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal by David Rosen (Carrel Books; February 23, 2016)

51tuLpwjLGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_B-emblem“David Rosen’s wide-ranging account of the moral panics and sexually and socially repressive policies during what Henry Miller called the ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ of the postwar United States is especially timely in a historical moment when fundamentalisms of all varieties are on the rise.” —Christopher Winks, Queens College, CUNY

 How did we get from Liberace, whose flamboyant showmanship was hidden under an imaginary cloak of “normal,” to Neil Patrick Harris whose artistry as a performer is as celebrated as his marriage to David Burtka and their two adorable children? The seeds of change were sown in post-World War II New York City where culture, sexuality and politics collided. Author Rosen looks at the outsiders of New York in the 50s who changed popular values and forged the trail toward the new normal.

 

Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox (W.W. Norton & Co.; February 9, 2016)

51+SkTKZzwL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_B+“An astonishingly interesting interpretation of the uses to which Lincoln has been put in the century and a half since [his death], in speeches and statues, in play and films, in poems and paintings.” —Jill Lepore, New York Times Book Review

During his lifetime Abraham Lincoln was considered a strange, awkward and unattractive man whose odd appearance was anything but presidential. Somehow, everything changed once Lincoln was shot. A grieving nation said good-bye via a three-week funeral train and thousands viewed the president’s body and the myth-making and martyrdom began with everything from portraits and statues to a continuous outpouring of biographies by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg, Gore Vidal and countless others. Beginning with the first Lincoln cult to his legacy today, renowned historian Fox illuminates the 16th president in an entirely new way.


Queen of Spies
: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master
by Paddy Hayes (The Overlook Press; January 19, 2016)

51P2Vb387HL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_A-emblem“[A]n excellent biography of a remarkable woman…As exciting as any good spy thriller―but it’s all true.” Kirkus, starred review

Could Daphne Park have been the inspiration for M in the James Bond films? Certainly Marvel’s Agent Carter owes a debt to the woman who rose through the ranks of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in a field entirely dominated by men. Hayes had unprecedented access to many of the people who worked with Park, as well as Park herself to explore the life of this rare female intelligence operative. The outcome reads like a Cold War espionage novel and brings to light the service of an extraordinary woman.

 

 

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner (W.W. Norton & Co.; January 19, 2016)

517h98VOk8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_a+Gateway to Freedom liberates the history of the underground railroad from the twin plagues of mythology and cynicism. The big picture is here, along with telling details from previously untapped sources. With lucid prose and careful analysis, Eric Foner tells a story that is at once unsparing and inspiring. For anyone who still wonders what was at stake in the Civil War, there is no better place to begin than Gateway to Freedom.” —James Oakes, Freedom National, winner, the Lincoln Prize

More than 3,000 former slaves found freedom through the underground railroad, but until now their stories were relegated to folklore. This history is one of the most fascinating reads of the year and an absolute must for anyone interested in the facts behind the antislavery resistance that thrived in New York between 1830 and 1860. By discovering a missing piece of the puzzle in the Columbia University archives, Foner uncovers forgotten heroes such as the Rev. Theodore S. Wright, head of the New York Vigilance Committee, which protected free blacks from kidnapping and being sold into slavery; abolitionist newspaper man Sydney Howard Gay; railroad officer Louis Napoleon (a humble furniture polisher by day); and John Jay II, grandson of the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

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is a writer, editor and dabbler in arty stuff. A fourth-generation journalist (on her father’s side) and millionteenth-generation mother (on her mother’s side) she has written, edited, photographed and illustrated for newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, videos and books. Known for her persnicketyness about grammar, she occasionally leaves in an error to delight people of similar inclination.