Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Five Interesting American History Books for July 4th.

If you're reading this on July 4, 2012, we're open 10 am to 5 pm today. If you've come upon this later, that's all in the past. And since it's Indepndence Day, I thought it would be nice to highlight a few new titles of American history, selling pretty well but below the bestseller levels. Besides, to me, the BISAC history books on top of the bestseller lists seem more like current events and politics anyway.

Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance, by Lisa Alther (Lyons Press). Tieing in to the cable TV series "Hatfields and McCoys," Alther's new book documents the history of the famous feud that started with the murder of a Union soldier by a Confederate relative. Yes, this is the same Alther who was the popular novelist between Original Sins and Kinflicks. She is also a McCoy. Who knew? The Wall Street Journal blog has a nice interview with Alther, where she ruminates on its history, its status today, and the miniseries.

The President's Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (Simon and Schuster). Politics is pretty partisan now; heck, I think we can assume is always pretty partisan, but there is apparantly one group of people who put aside differences to work together, and that is ex-presidents. Gibbs (an executive editor at Time) and Duffy (a journalism professor at Princeton) come together to document the history of this "hidden instrument of power that changed the course of history. Read more in David Greenberg's Washington Post review.

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot (Free Press).  We all romanticize the past, right? And what could be dreamier than imagining San Francisco in the summer of love? And now San Francisco is a showplace for American ingenuity, arts, and wealth. But we all forget the middle years, when SF was"rocked by savage murder sprees, mysterious terror campaigns, political assassinations, street riots, and finally a terrifying sexual epidemic." No wonder all my friends escaping their dreary lives reset their compasses for Seattle. Don Lattin in the San Francisco Chronicle found Season of the Witch "hard to put down," despite finding the third section on the city's rebirth not up to the level of parts one "enchantment" and two "terror." Was it really the San Francisco 49ers that led the city out of its mess? If so, I guess we have to give the Bucks a new stadium, after all.

The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, by Walter Borneman (Little, Brown). There have only been four five-star admirals: William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey. Borneman, who has penned a number of histories including 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, weaves together these four stories to create a narrative of World War II triumph. Yes, they all served at the same time. According to the Wall Street Journal review from Andrew Roberts, Borneman's most controversial decision is to highlight the tactical gaffes of "Bull" Halsey, who simply doesn't compare to the other three. You can decide for yourself.

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, by Lawrence N. Powell (Harvard University Press). I've been thinking a lot about New Orleans this year. First booksellers were focused there, as it was the setting for this past winter's bookseller conference. And then it was the largest city to date to lose daily printing of its newspaper, The Times Picayune. Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post proclaims that Powell, a history professor at Tulane, has surely written the definitive history of New Orleans's first century.

But that said, I didn't pay much attention to Powell's book when it came out. Reading history books almost never occurs to me. There are hardly any events. There are pretty much never any advance reading copies. And I know that it will take three times as long to read one as it will many other books. But here's the saddest thing--even if I do read it and love it, the customer purchases will still be driven more by subject matter, national reviews, and author interviews. I can sell the book almost better by being a knowledgeable bookseller than by reading the book. If you come to me and ask for a history of San Francisco, I can try to sell you The Accidental City, but no matter how much better it is, you'll take Season of the Witch instead (and note, I'm not saying one is better here.)

But that's not totally true. Conrad almost always has a Native American history on his rec shelf, and they almost always sell well. And then there is one about Robert Gray of Fresh Eyes Now, who in his years of Northshire who in his years at Northshire noted to me they had hand-sold 400 copies of Washington's Crossing. And let me just say that this was multiples more than the five Schwartz bookshops had sold. So hand-selling history can happen. You just need the right bookseller and the right book...and a lot of foot traffic.

No comments: