It’s reassuring to discover that heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that incredible acts of strength and endurance are doable. His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete, Hitler’s designated launching pad for the invasion of Russia.
The end of World War II in Europe brought a wide range of reactions, especially in Germany. From concentration camp prisoners to top Nazi officers, from refugees crowding the roads to soldiers eager to see the war finally over, there was a mixture of heartbreak, relief, chaos and disbelief. For German novelist Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, researching and compiling those responses, through eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries, became a lifelong mission. The result was 10 volumes and a diary of his project’s progress.
Los Angeles would not exist as the sprawling, highly populated global center it is today were it not for one man. At the turn of the last century, William Mulholland, a civil servant self-educated in the ways of water engineering, all but willed Southern California’s future when he masterminded one of the greatest engineering projects of all time: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The tactics may have changed, but the intent remains the same: North Korea is a mysterious, insular country that above all loathes the United States. Today, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un retains his tight grip on power through imprisonment and purges. His threats against the United States include missile testing and computer hacking. But Kim’s modern-day machinations simply mirror the early actions of his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, who took control of North Korea following World War II and established the Kim family dynasty. Blaine Harden’s new book, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, describes the formation of that dynasty and offers one explanation for why North Korea hates the U.S.
In an interview some years ago, Erik Larson, author of such bestsellers as The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, called himself “an animator of history” rather than a historian. Indeed, he has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself.
If you’re an author with a family ghost, it would seem almost obligatory to write about it. Hannah Nordhaus’ “paternal grandfather’s maternal grandmother,” Julia -Staab, haunts La Posada hotel in Santa Fe (or so lots of people believe). In American Ghost, Nordhaus offers a fascinating and nuanced account of her ancestral ghost story and her complicated clan.
The most notable assassination in history, of probably the single most influential man in European history, occurred in 44 B.C. The event changed the world, but not as the assassins had planned. Why and how did it happen? In The Death of Caesar, history and classics professor Barry Strauss offers both excellent historical detective work and riveting prose.
There it is, right at the beginning of the rules pamphlet included with our family’s well-worn Monopoly game. “In 1934, Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, presented a game called Monopoly to the executives of Parker Brothers.” Sounds simple enough. But as Mary Pilon shows in The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, the road to fame for Monopoly was circuitous.
The Spanish Civil War, fought between 1936 and 1939, was the first struggle against fascism in Europe as the powers of Germany and Italy, for their own purposes, joined with General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist (rebel) forces to oust the elected government. Although the Western democracies adopted a policy of nonintervention, volunteers came from many countries to assist the Republican government in the hope that fascism could be stopped. Unfortunately, five months after the Spanish war ended, World War II began in Europe. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun) shows in his fast-paced, often moving and revealing new book Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, the earlier war served in numerous ways as a laboratory for the larger war.
The civil rights laws and social programs initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s transformed U.S. society. Although they were highly controversial at the time, laws establishing Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, help to those in poverty, consumer and environmental protection, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and many other programs remain in place today. Though President John F. Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation shortly before his death, it was his successor, Johnson, who was able to get the legislation passed and move on to other aspects of what became known as the Great Society.