The Best History Books, Biographies, and Memoirs of 2017

2017 was a monumental year for the world, and just as great a one for books that look back on how we got to here. These 25 books encompass a wide range of subjects, writing styles, and personalities, but they all have one thing in common—by shedding light on the past (even if only the life and experiences of a single person), they all broaden our understanding of what it means to be living in the world today.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, by Sherman Alexie
As well as a beloved author, Alexie has been a poet, filmmaker, and screenwriter. He’s won praise and generated controversy for his outspokenness, especially when Arizona recently banned his works from schools as part of a cull of Mexican-American studies programs. His first memoir tackles the complex and difficult relationship he had with his mother. Her death Forced Alexie to confront his bond with the intelligent but often abusive woman he left behind.

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden
Joe Biden, former Vice President and possible future presidential candidate, lost his son Beau to brain cancer after a momentous struggle. When Beau was in the midst of his fight against the disease, he made his father promise that he would be all right. Over the next year, Joe Biden served his country as Vice President while his son slowly lost his battle. In this remarkable memoir, Biden opens up about that period of his life, discussing with disarming intimacy the personal and political struggles he endured while working to make the world a safer place and trying to decide if he would run for president in 2016. Biden’s wisdom and advice for anyone who has lost someone close to them is powerful, and his insights into life’s problems come from someone who has dealt with some of the most difficult challenges in modern times on the world stage.

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden
The 1968 Tet Offensive changed the course of the Vietnam War, and its startling, shocking success more or less made American defeat there inevitable. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese surprise attack during the New Year holiday was not only a military success, but a success of propaganda as their forces were instructed to “behave like winners” as they fought. Bowden digs in to how, exactly, the surprise was pulled off and traces the many threads of consequences that followed, resulting in one of the best books on Vietnam ever written. Bowden expertly walks the reader through the single but momentous action, using several set-pieces to illustrate what the fighting was like on both sides.

Grant, by Ron Chernow
Pulitzer-winning author Chernow tackles one of our most disappointing—and perplexing—presidents with another sharply-written, deeply-researched book. Chernow sets out to prove that Grant, the brilliant general, was a far better president than he’s usually given credit for. Chernow has his work cut out for him, but he paints a detailed picture of Grant as a man of action who withered in inactivity, a man whose alcoholism followed a unique cycle of binging followed by lengthy periods of sobriety, a man often mistaken for homeless prior to the Civil War who brought a willingness to engage the Confederate armies head on to his tactics that proved to be the key to winning the war. As he did with Alexander Hamilton, Chernow takes a familiar but opaque figure of American history and fleshes him out, revealing the human being under the engravings—for better or worse.

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin
Bringing a level of factual rigor to the legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Dodge City isn’t an easy task; the story of those pioneering lawmen, and the famed gunfight at the OK Corral, is slathered with mythic overtones. In this revealing work, Clavin strips away the unnecessary flourishes to focuses on the facets of the story he can verify—and that unadorned tale turns out to be just as fascinating, especially his telling of the lesser-known Dodge City War, a bloodless affair that saw Earp and Masterson return to the area years later to firmly establish the rule of law, once and for all. You might think you know the story of Dodge City’s most famous gunslingers, but like as not, you only know the Hollywood version. Here’s your chance to fix that.

It’s Not Yet Dark: A Memoir, by Simon Fitzmaurice
A doctor gave filmmaker Fitzmaurice four years to live following an ALS diagnosis in 2008. By 2010, he was at death’s door, and given little hope, but nevertheless chose to take extraordinary measures to stay alive. In the years since, he’s fathered twins and continued to work as a documentarian. Fitzmaurice talks candidly about his daily struggles, but also about the family that sustains him in a life that’s radically different from the one he’d planned for.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
Gessen takes a personal approach to tracing Russia’s transformation from collapsed empire into “mafia state,” following four principle figures (herself, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Seryozha, scion of a political reformist, and Lyosha, a homosexual in what is rapidly becoming the most homophobic nation in the world. This intimate focus grants a frightening immediacy to the story of a country that was once perceived as a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism but now seems to have reverted back to its fascist roots almost entirely. Along the way are plenty of insights into the current political situation around the world, making this as much an important work of history as it is a memoir.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
Considering how important they were in shaping the modern age, the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s are remarkably little-known today. When the Nation became incredibly wealthy after oil was discovered on their land, more than 20 of its members of were murdered between 1921 and 1926. As public outrage grew, the federal government was pressured into putting the obscure Bureau of Investigation, led by a young Herbert Hoover, in charge of the case. Hoover used the notoriety of these awful crimes to establish what would soon be known as the FBI as the nation’s preeminent investigative body, and himself as its all-powerful chief. Grann, of The Lost City of Z fame, does a marvelous job catching you up on vital history that’s been nearly forgotten.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
History normally looks back and attempts to say, with certainty, what did or didn’t happen. Harari takes a different approach: looking forward. While admitting that no one can accurately predict the future, he attempts to take all the information on hand and make bold predictions as to the most likely course of future human history—and his conclusions aren’t very reassuring. While he sees plenty of achievements in store for us, his theory is that humanity’s progress is inevitably making us insignificant, resulting in a future where we won’t be in control of our existence—if we’re even still around (the “post-human future” is certainly in the tea leaves.) It’s up to you to decide if Harari makes his case—but whether you agree or not, the time spent with this book is worthwhile.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson begins with the presumption that Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the most creative genius in human history and proceeds from there, digesting more than 7,000 pages of notes da Vinci left behind and producing this biography. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read about the most famous artist of the 15th and 16th centuries, Isaacson paints a portrait of a restless mind that exhibited unusual curiosity and made magical connections between disciplines that had never been made before. At the same time, he shows da Vinci as a man whose always-churning mind could leave many projects unfinished as he dashed from idea to idea. When one of our best modern writers tackles one of the most famous minds in history, it’s time to pay attention.

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, by Dan Jones
The Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple, known today as the Templars, began existence as a group of impoverished knights who protected pilgrims to the Holy Land in exchange for charity. From these humble beginnings sprang one of the most powerful and influential knightly orders in history. Gaining patronage, property, and political power, the Templars grew so great they were eventually demonized and destroyed by rival powers in Europe. Jones tells the story of the Templars in brisk writing that makes their rise and fall viscerally exciting, informative, and fascinating.

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, by Denise Kiernan
As the conversation about income inequality ramps up, this book is the ideal historical complement. In the late 19th century, George Washington Vanderbilt II was the world’s richest bachelor, and he chose to put his immense resources into building the largest private home ever constructed, a 175,000 square foot mansion sitting on 125,000 acres of land. Uninterested in romance, Vanderbilt nonetheless married the well-bred but impoverished Edith Dresser, who suddenly found herself queen of a city-sized estate. A spice of schadenfreude comes into play as Vanderbilt’s fortunes decline and the family is thrust into the sort of economic downturn that most people would recognize, even if on a vastly different scale, and Edith emerges as a heroine of sorts as she struggles to save her family and her huge, lavish home.

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir, by Ariel Levy
Celebrated writer Levy tells her life story with verve and gusto, exploring as a central theme the way the universe laughs at our plans. As a young child Levy was taught she could do anything, but also warned not to depend on a man for support. As her star rose as a writer for New York Magazine and elsewhere in the 1990s her life began taking unscheduled detours: she married an older woman with substance abuse problems, she conceived a child using a sperm donor but suffered a miscarriage, and she never lost a burning desire to seek adventure and new experiences. The end result is a compelling and compulsively readable memoir.

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews
For younger generations, the Kennedy name may no longer be magic, but Chris Mathews does great work to remind everyone just how special the Kennedy family was at one time. Although JFK gets most of the attention, Hardball anchor Chris Matthews knows that Bobby Kennedy was almost as important, and came very close to being president himself—and may well have been if he hadn’t been cut down in the prime of life just like his brother. Matthews doesn’t sugarcoat the ruthlessness that made plenty of enemies for Bobby Kennedy, but he also captures the younger Kennedy’s keen intellect and growing empathy for people who were not as fortunate as him, traits that would have made him a great president, had he lived.

The American Spirit: Who We Are & What We Stand For, by David McCullough
McCullough is one of the most celebrated historians in American history. He has written absorbing accounts of the Wright Brothers, John Adams, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge—winning two Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards along the way. A thinker like that naturally makes a lot of speeches in front of a lot of audiences, and he compiles here some of his best—speeches made before Congress, before academic audiences, before groups of fellow historians. This is stirring stuff, the sort of of clear-eyed, patriotic, smart rhetoric we need more of in these divisive and confusing times. McCullough brings a calm authority to his words, equal parts comforting and energizing. It is an ideal book to read if your faith in our institutions is fading.

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxas
If you ever doubt that one person can alter the course of history, look no further than Martin Luther, a young monk who sought only to spark debate when he posted his 95 Theses to a church door. Instead, Luther’s startling moment of protest launched what came to be known as the Protestant Revolution and remade the Christian faith. Metaxas offers up a fresh perspective on a man so famous he’s more myth than reality these days, finding the humanity underneath the history.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore
Whenever someone questions the need for laws protecting workers and everyone else from the deprivations of profit-seeking companies, this story should serve as educational. In the early 20th century, more than a dozen women were employed to paint watches with luminous paint based on the radioactive material radium. These women were fine artists who were able to manipulate their brushes expertly, often using their mouths to twist the brushes to a fine point in order to do the detail work. Soon after, many began suffering terrible medical problems, including lost teeth and disease jawbones, sparking a decades-long legal and medical battle that redefined worker’s rights and workplace safety.

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy
Stories of World War II often focus on the heroic deeds of male soldiers, but newly declassified documents reveal a shadow army of women who also did their part—the codebreakers. Recruited from colleges and secretarial pools for their math skills, these women were set to the task of breaking enemy codes, but their efforts and achievements were top secret, and their stories largely unknown—until now. Battling the expected sexism and hostile attitudes of their male counterparts and supervisors, tens of thousands of women helped to end the war much more quickly than it would have otherwise, and Mundy rescues their stories from obscurity and gives them the credit they deserve. In fact, she makes a solid case that without these women, we might not have won World War II at all.

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson
When Hitler and the Nazis overran much of Europe, Great Britain was flooded with refugees from all nations and walks of life—including people who had implored the British to help them, to no avail, as the German army crashed over their borders. Olson chronicles story after story of heroism, betrayal, heartbreak, and triumph, from the Polish codebreakers who helped Bletchley Park decipher the Nazi codes, to the governments in exile that formed. The experiences and contributions of these dislocated people had a direct impact on the outcome of the war, and many of their stories will be inspirational, even seven decades later.

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
Preston, also known as one half of the team writing the Agent Pendergrast series of thrillers, details his involvement with a team seeking to prove the existence of a lost city in the Honduran wilderness. Legends tell of a city destroyed by a series of natural cataclysms, abandoned as cursed, and forbidden for centuries. Using a combination of cutting-edge technology and boots on the ground, Preston and his team locate two large sites and a wealth of archaeological treasures to prove that a lost civilization once existed in an area of the world where no human being has set foot in centuries. Preston’s skill as a novelist makes the deep-dive into the past at once entertaining, gripping, and informative.

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge, by Helen Rappaport

History can sometimes seem a bit like looking at a diorama behind glass, leaving you to wonder what it was like to actually be there. Rappaport solves this problem with this fascinating new look at the Russian Revolution, focusing on foreigners from Western nations who were in Petrograd as the powder keg of revolution exploded. Glimpse the beginnings of a violent uprising that transformed an empire (and the world) from the perspective of the confused, scared people who were on hand to witness it. From barricaded offices to views of riots, Rappaport’s lively writing offers a “you are there” approach to history that is sobering in its immediacy.

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by, by Thomas E. Ricks
Context is everything. Although they lived at the same time, were born in the same country, and fought many of the same enemies, Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met, and there’s no evidence they ever even read each other’s work. Ricks places these two remarkable men side-by-side, however, and finds common ground in their shared philosophies and hatred of tyranny. A study of the lives of two men who never interacted might seem like a strange approach to history, but the result is a deeper look at the larger picture of culture and society that shaped their views, and the impact each had on the world around them.

The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War, by Doug Stanton
One of the most effective techniques in a history book is to focus on a single event, exploring every facet in order to illuminate a larger related tapestry. Stanton does just this with his exploration of the Tet Offensive, the chaotic attack North Vietnam launched on January 31st, 1968 in an effort to destabilize the south and push American forces out of the country. The forty men of Echo Company of the 101st Airborne Division (an army reconnaissance platoon) had just arrived in country, and found themselves enduring a grueling, seemingly endless battle against a desperate, implacable enemy. The gripping descriptions of endless fighting combined with testimonials about the less-than warm welcome the soldiers received when they returned home help to explain the Vietnam era in terms anyone will understand.

Where the Past Begins, by Amy Tan
Bestselling novelist Tan’s unconventional memoir finds her on a journey through her own past via spontaneous storytelling: using fluid writing to search through her own memories to reveal the inspirations and traumas that have shaped her works. In the process, Tan reveals difficult truths about her childhood, and makes connections and uncovers memories that she herself was shocked by.

We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, by Gabrielle Union
Actress Union tells her story with wit and sensitivity, a story that includes her struggles as one of a few black students in a predominantly white high school, the devastating rape at gunpoint that almost broke her, and her recovery and pursuit of a high-octane Hollywood career. Union addresses topics including parenting, raising black kids in a culture often perceived as steeped in racism, and teen sexuality—always with disarming humor and perceptive insights that mark this as much more than a typical Hollywood vanity memoir. Without much of a filter, Union comes across as a nuanced survivor who has managed to keep both her sense of humor and her ability to love despite her experiences.

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