In between catching up with family and friends, the holidays can be a great time to get started on those books you have been meaning to read.
For those interested in history and politics, Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, has compiled a list of compelling books that she enjoyed this year.
Her list includes authors from both sides of the aisle taking on subject matter ranging from the tumult of the 1960s to the implications of the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s a bipartisan mix, about key figures in both the Republican and Democratic parties, with a thematic arc that starts with Franklin Roosevelt and World War II and continues through today,” Perry said.
Check out her picks below.
“The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace” by David B. Woolner
Just published this month, “The Last 100 Days” chronicles the final days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and his life as he worked to end World War II. He died just three weeks before V-E Day in 1945.
“This book tells us a lot about the country in the mid-1940s, as FDR fought valiantly, while his life was ebbing away, to create an international system of peace,” Perry said. “He helped to create the United Nations and carved out an international role for the United States after the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s.”
“Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” by Chris Matthews
2018 marks 50 years since Robert Kennedy’s assassination on June 5, 1968 while he was campaigning in the Democratic presidential primaries. This new biography, published in October, focuses on Kennedy’s efforts to bridge divisions in the country and bring together groups clashing over race, economic inequality or the ongoing war in Vietnam.
Perry said she was particularly moved by Matthews’ depiction of the April 4, 1968 speech Kennedy gave after hearing of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that day. Kennedy was about to take the stage for a rally in Indianapolis when he was told of the assassination and had to break the news to his mostly African-American audience.
“He gave a beautiful, heartfelt speech, now considered one of the top political speeches in American history, about how the country needed to come together,” Perry said. “Instead of ginning up our differences, he was trying to bridge them and, in some ways, he succeeded. Indianapolis was the only major city that did not erupt in violence that night.”
“All Falling Faiths: Reflections on the Promise and Failure of the 1960s” by J. Harvie Wilkinson III
For another take on the chaotic, transformative years of the 1960s, Perry suggests “All Falling Faiths,” a memoir written by Charlottesville resident J. Harvie Wilkinson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit since 1984. In it, the judge reflects on how the events of the 1960s shook Americans’ faith in key institutions like law and religion.
“This book provides a nice juxtaposition with the Bobby Kennedy biography, from a conservative point of view,” Perry said. “Judge Wilkinson, who was appointed by President Reagan, is a brilliant intellectual conservative and he’s put together a beautifully written memoir.”
“The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush” by Mark Updegrove
“The Last Republicans” also examines the past and future of the Republican Party, this time with a focus on the two Republican presidents preceding Trump: George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush. Updegrove interviewed both Bushes, focusing particularly on their post-presidential years.
“It’s a fascinating look at their relationship, the party that they represented and their thoughts on the 2016 presidential campaign, which of course included Jeb Bush,” Perry said.
“The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth
The only fiction title on the list, “The Plot Against America,” presents an alternative history, speculating on what would have happened if aviator Charles Lindbergh, known for his affinity for Germany, had been elected in 1940 instead of Roosevelt. Roth, a Jew, tells the story from the point of view of his 10-year-old self while weaving a complicated plot involving German interference in American elections, shifting international alliances and the ongoing struggle between isolationism and internationalism.
“It’s a really interesting alternative history, and there are parts that ring true today,” Perry said.
Need more holiday reads? Try this list put together by English professor Lisa Woolfork and UVA Bookstore general books manager Roy Cadoff.