For the Sunset of Summer: A Summer Reading List for 2021

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
July 30, 2021

“Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.” I did not often agree with the late Christopher Hitchens, but he was probably right in that assessment. We may only read a fraction of the number of books we would want to read, and that makes choosing pleasure reading all the more difficult. I like reading so many different categories of books (ranging from theology to history to novels and Russian literature, and beyond), but I reserve time each summer for reading history, biography, and other non-fiction that I find really enjoyable and profitable. I also reserve time for spy novels, but that would require a different article.

In this annual list I share some of my favorites of the season. It’s a bit later this summer, but I have been working in time for fishing and reading and, with my wife Mary, having the time of our lives with grandkid camp. So, better late than never, I hope. There is still plenty of summer left for worthy reading.


1. Laurence Rees, Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War (Public Affairs).

Zbigniew Brzezinski once referred to the twentieth century as the century of “megadeath.” There were murderous tyrants before Hitler and Stalin and Mao, but none had their capacity for murder on such an industrial scale of horror. Laurence Rees is one of the most respected historians of World War II in Europe. But in this new book he offers what can only be described as an epic consideration of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in the context of that war. Rees reveals both men to be diabolically evil — charismatic leaders who were both alike and very different. The comparison of their two stories, and the profiles of the two men as leaders of war, is both riveting and important.


“Ultimately, both Hitler and Stalin made the same mistake. Both fooled themselves into believing that they could think into existence what they wanted to happen. To an extent, they lived within their own universe of alternative facts. In Stalin’s case he asserted that the Germans were not planning to invade, and so this became — to him — the truth. Hitler maintained that the Soviet system would collapse under pressure, and so that became his reality. Famously, the Germans were so confident that they could win this war before winter that hardly any of their soldiers were issued with cold-weather clothes. Neither Hitler nor Stalin understood the conceptual error they were making. Neither of them was in control of the events they imagined into existence, and yet they counted on the correctness of their predictions. Neither of them had a plan B. It was plan A or catastrophe.”


2. Adrian Goldsworthy, Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors (Basic Books).

Father and son, monarchs and military geniuses, Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, really did change the world. They did not merely change their world, for their legacy continues into our own. In this new book, Adrian Goldsworthy offers the best telling of their stories to be found in a single volume. Goldsworthy is a fine historian, and he understands his task. He knows that complex forces are at work in any epoch, but he also knows that leadership can and does matter, and can change history. There has never been a father and son with such influence in the world. A father who rose from obscurity followed by a son who is tutored by Aristotle? Philip and Alexander tells their story well.


Leaders matter in any age for good or ill, and there are times in history when a few individuals make a profound difference, even if much of it was unintentional. Philip and Alexander were such leaders, and between them they changed the course of history, and did it remarkable quickly. In less than forty years, the fractured, backwater kingdom of Macedonia came to dominate Greece, then attacked the greatest superpower of the day and won. They created and led the finest fighting force yet seen in history, humbling Athens and Sparta, destroying Thebes, burning down the palace of the Persian king, crossing the Hindu Kush, and marching into what is now Pakistan. These were no mere raids, and both men founded many cities and settled them with their soldiers to control the conquered territory. While the empire Philip and Alexander forged did not survive them as a single entity, they played a key role in spreading Greek language and culture over a vast area, and a different sort of Greek culture, its ideas no longer dominated by the leading city-states. The consequences of this were many and profound, for it lead to the New Testament being written in Greek, and a Greek-speaking ‘Roman’ empire surviving in the eastern Mediterranean for a thousand years after the last emperor to rule from Italy.”


3. Josh Ireland, Churchill & Son (Dutton).

Winston Churchill’s famous father believed that Winston would never amount to anything. Instead, Winston rose to greatness, defending and inspiring Britain in the nation’s “darkest hour.” Winston Churchill was certain that his own son, Randolph, was destined for greatness. Winston was as wrong about his son Randolph as his own father had been wrong about Winston. Josh Ireland reveals the truth about both Winston and Randolph in this brilliant (if tragic) account of two lives. Something like fifty new titles on Winston Churchill appear each year. This one stands out from the rest in telling the personal stories of Winston and Randolph together. Every father–and every son–should read this book and consider its lessons.


Winston was one of the most paradoxical men of his time, or any other. He was the wild risk-taker who cleaned his teeth and changed his shirts three times a day, and who was so attached to routine that he got upset if he could not have a cup of cold consomme on retiring, no matter how big the banquet he had just been to…. He was a sentimentalist who wept at films and could be plunged into misery by the death of a beloved pet, but he as also quite capable of upbraiding his generals for withdrawing  before they had sustained what he believed was an appropriate quantity of casualties. It was another of these perplexing contradictions that was at the heart of his relationship with Randolph. Toward the end of his life, Randolph told his own son how, when he was twenty, his father had taken him for a walk at Chartwell. Winston had begun thinking about ‘the battle of life,’ put his arm around Randolph, and said: ‘My father died when I was exactly your age. This left the political arena clear for me. I do not know how I would have fared in politics had he lived on. It was at once a recognition of the difficulties he knew his son would face as he attempted to make his own way, and also a warning. a reminder that while he was still alive, his own ambitions would always take priority over Randolph’s, and that the world, big as it was, only had space for one Churchill.”


4. Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Basic Books).

“The Vikings never wrote their own histories,” notes Neil Price, who has now written their history for them. Price, distinguished professor of archaeology at the University of Upsalla in Sweden, understands the challenges any historian faces when piecing together the strands of evidence and historical accounts from such a distant time. Price’s expertise in archaeology certainly helps, and his account of the Vikings is well-written and thoroughly interesting. Children of Ash and Elm also helps to fill out dimensions of the European story that are often neglected, such as the importance of Scandinavia and its influence far beyond the northlands. This is the best book on the Vikings to emerge in years. The book is a solid read, but one chapter on “border crossings” is evidence of the warping influence of sexual theory. Sadly, given the “progressive” commitments of the publishing world, this is likely a pattern to be repeated again and again.


We should not forget that the Children of Ash and Elm were also, once, simply children: ten generations of small people who grew up in what we call the Viking Age–another shift of perspective away from the mad marauders of stereotype. They are gone, of course, but we can still just about make them out in the things they used; in their gravers, buried too soon with their little treasures, in the places they lived; and in later texts, the poems and sagas. We can see them at their games,. Galloping a wooden horse on an earthen floor in Dublin. Bouncing a ball made of rags along Novgorod’s timber streets. Watching over a smaller sibling, wriggling about in a barred chair like the one from Lund. Battling with carefully crafted miniature wooden swords, made to match the larger versions they weren’t supposed to touch. We can see them in the rain and mist of the Faroes, sailing their toy boats on the spring melt and waiting for the tide.”


5. Michael Shnayerson, Bugsy Siegel: The Dark Side of the American Dream, Jewish Lives Series (Yale University Press).

The name of Bugsy Siegel is lasting in the American memory, firmly connected to the legacy of organized crime. Siegel’s life and crimes, however, are yet further evidence that the real story is usually even more interesting than the inventions of novels or films. In the case of Bugsy Siegel, the novel (1969) and the film (1972) would be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. The real Bugsy Siegel was a far more important character than The Godfather‘s Moe Green. Puzo’s account was centrally focused on the Sicilian mobsters and what would be known as the Mafia, but the history of organized crime and gangsters in twentieth-century America cannot be told without the role of the Jewish gangsters, and Bugsy Siegel was central to that story (along with Meyer Lansky). Add to that Siegel’s role in establishing Las Vegas, the Syndicate, and modern gambling in America. Shnayerson is a skilled writer and he doesn’t shrink from the violence of his story. As the subtitle rightly states, this is indeed a story from “the dark side of the American dream.” The entire “Jewish Lives” project from Yale University Press is outstanding. I try to read them all.


The opening of Siegel’s home on Delfern Drive in 1938 brought Siegel’s glamorous life to a new level. He and Esther began giving grand parties. In came the stars, intrigued by the mansion and its mysterious host. Cary Grant was among them, as were Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. George Raft was a regular, of course. So was Jimmy Durante. And so was Frank Sinatra, who knew more of Siegel’s story through his own mob friends than most other guests. Comic actor Phil Silvers’s wife, Jo-Carroll Dennision, said her husband and his pals were enthralled. ‘They would brag about Bugsy, what he’d done and how many people he had killed. Sometimes they’d argue about whether Bugsy preferred to shoot his victims or simply chop them up with axes.’ Dennision never forgot ‘the awe Frank had in his voice when he talked about him. He wanted to emulate Bugsy.'”


6. Philippe Sands, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive (Knopf).

The fate of the Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of World War II is one of the most compelling moral questions of the twentieth century, and Philippe Sands, who teachers law at University College, London, has done incredible investigative work in uncovering the story of Otto von Wachter, who became the infamous SS governor of Galicia and both creator and overseer of the Krakow ghetto. Wachter was a henchman to Heinrich Himmler and he knew he was one of the world’s most sought-after fugitives after the war. He fully intended to join the notorious “ratline” that took senior Nazi’s into refuge in South America, but he ended up dying in Rome. With great skill, Sands unpacks the evidence and offers two massively important moral dimensions to the story. First, Sands puts the account of Wachter’s post-war life into the context of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Second, he conducted hours upon hours of conversation with Wachter’s son, Horst, who sought to justify his dead father as a “good man.” In it’s own unique and deeply troubling way, The Ratline, like Churchill & Son and Philip and Alexander, continues the theme of fathers and their sons, sons and their fathers.


The following morning, 10 May, General Freitag disappeared. A search party found him on the outskirts of Tamsweg. He asked to be left alone, wandered off, then took his own life. Otto decided to leave General Shandruk and take his chances alone. He knew the Americans were after him, as well as the British and the Poles, the Jews and the Soviets. He would take the road south, cross the mountains into Italy, join up with unnamed friends. On the afternoon of 10 May, 1945, he was seen heading out of Tamsweg, alone. That was the last sighting. Otto Wachter, husband and father, lawyer, former governor, SS man indicted for mass murder, including shootings and executions, disappeared. It happened in the summer of 1934, and now, in the spring of 1945, it happened again.


7. Martyn Rady, The Habsburgs: To Rule the World (Basic Books).

It staggers the imagination to remember that the long era of Habsburg royal and imperial rule came to an end just over 100 years ago, well into the twentieth century. As that century began, the Habsburg emperor still ruled over vast European territory, based in Vienna, and the Habsburg emperor of Austria-Hungary as seen as the key to European peace and a bulwark against ethnic warfare. The Habsburgs also saw themselves as protectors of the Roman Catholic Church and as the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire. Vienna was the center of the world and the apex of its civilization, in their view. Habsburg rule ended with both a bang (World War I) and a whimper (deposed Emperor Karl, Charles I of Austria, dying in exile on the island of Madeira). We should also remember that one Habsburg archduke, Maximillian, ruled as Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico, before dying there in 1867 by firing squad. Rady traces the Habsburgs through glory and humiliation. It is a very important story. It is a very human story.


Monarchs were the first modern celebrities. They were objects of spectacle, whose image was through the photograph and the mass-produced engraving made into a commodity that lent them a ‘larger than life’ quality. Their deaths, too, gave meaning and intensity to existences that were remote from everyday experience. Maximillian’s death in 1867 was the first murder of a sovereign in a line of assassinations across Europe that resumed the next year with the murder of Prince Michael of Serbia. It was followed by the killings of Alexander II of Russia (1881), Umberto I of Italy (1900), King Alexander and Queen Daga of Serbia (1903), Carlos I and Crown Prince Luiz Felipe of Portugal (1908), and George I of Greece (1913).  Among the Habsburgs, violent death also became familiar after 1867.”


8. Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Norton).

Almost sixty years later, we now know that the world came even closer to nuclear war in 1962 than was understood at the time. The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the pivotal events of the twentieth century, and it shaped the world of my boyhood vividly. As a child growing up in Florida, living halfway between two very close Strategic Air Command bases and triangulated by a bombing range at Avon Park, the sight of B-52 bombers and other U. S. Air Force planes was constant. Even as a boy, I knew to make the connection with Cuba and its communist regime less than 100 miles from Florida. I would later learn about the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union and the United States came so close to nuclear disaster. How close? Much closer than either President John F. Kennedy or Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev understood. Serhii Plokhy begins his account by telling of the day in 1992 when Robert McNamara, who had been Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, heard from General Anatoly Gribkov, who had been commander of Warsaw pact forces, that the Soviets had actually placed more than 40,000 troops in Cuba in 1962. Clearly shaken, McNamara understood then that if Kennedy had ordered a military attack on the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, it would have meant nuclear war. Plokhy’s account is unique because of his use of evidence from within Soviet archives. As Plokhy makes stunningly clear, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev understood what the other was thinking. It is a sobering and important book. For me, the story hit very close to home. Very close, indeed.


Kennedy was trying to make sense of what had just happened in the context of the two letters that Khrushchev had sent him in the last twenty-four hours. ‘How do we explain the effect of this Khrushchev message of last night and their decision [to shoot down an American plane]?” asked the president. ‘How do we interpret this?” responded McNamara, ‘I do not know how to explain it.’ The dark room in which they were all operating as they tried to discern the rationale behind Khrushchev’s contradictory letters has suddenly been darkened even more by the shocking news. The members of ExCom could not imagine that they were the only ones losing control of their people on the ground and in the sky. Khrushchev was facing the same situation, and the consequences in his case were even more dangerous.”


9. Ben Wilson, Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention (Doubleday).

Over time, the human story becomes the story of cities, for good and for ill. Within the next three populations shifts will probably produce what has never before been true  — two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban. As Ben Wilson explains, cities are rightly associated with security, financial strength, culture, status, and opportunity. At the same time, cities are also associated with crime, density, squalor, conflict, and crisis. Wilson traces the history of human cities from ancient Uruk to ultra-modern Los Angeles and shape-of-the-future Lagos but the truly fascinating chapters tell the story of the city as a framework for understanding unfolding technologies, economics, politics, culture, morality, and . . . bathing habits. The book is fast in pace and yet filled with data about cities past, present, and future.


One of the major changes that has assailed the planet in the last three decades is the starting way in which major metropolises are pulling away from their countries. The global economy is skewed towards a few cities and city-regions: by 2025, 440 cities with a collective population of 600 million (7% of all people) will account for half of worldwide gross domestic product. Single cities in many emerging markets such as Sao Paulo, Lagos, Moscow, and Johannesburg on their own produce between a third and a half of their nation’s wealth. Lagos, with 10% of Nigeria’s population, accounts for 60% of the nation’s industrial and commercial activities; if it declared independence and became a city-state, it would be the fifth richest country in Africa. In China, 40% of the country’s entire economic output is generated by just three megacity regions. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, we are seeing a return to a situation common for most of history–the outsized role of the supercity in human affairs.”


10. Gary Ginsberg, First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents (Twelve).

Several observers have argued that we are now experiencing a crisis of friendship. Under several layers of stress, the absence of friends is exacting a huge toll on many people in modern society. Evidently, the problem is more acute among men than among women. Far more men report having no close friendship with another man or among a group of men. Loneliness often results, and it comes with a rather high cost.

Thus far, Americans have known forty-six presidents, all of them men. The “friend crisis” among men is not a new story, even if it is receiving renewed attention. The story of close friends, whether by presence or by absence, has shaped the nation, as well as the lives of our presidents. Gary Ginsberg takes a close look at several presidential friendships that left a lasting mark upon the nation and the presidency. At the onset, Ginsberg tells us that he learned from an old Washington political sage that a politician without friends should be a matter of concern. It’s a very good point, but as Ginsberg’s book reveals, the friends themselves can often be trouble. We learn a good deal about the friendships of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Franklin Pierce and Nathanial Hawthorne, Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo, Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan, among others. Perhaps the most important chapter looks closely at the friendship between Woodrow Wilson and Colonel Edward M. House–a friendship eventually shattered by Wilson. That relationship changed the course of history on both sides of the Atlantic. Ginsberg brings a new vantage point for presidential history, and raises a host of good questions about friendship as well.


Their final conversation on the platform played out true to form, as if scripted. House urged Wilson to approach the isolationist Senate in a ‘conciliatory’ manner. ‘House,’ the president replied, ‘I have found one can never get anything in this life that is worthwhile without fighting for it.’ In what would be his final rejoinder, the Colonel reminded Wilson that ‘Anglo-Saxon civilization was built on compromise. I said that a fight was the last thing to be brought about, and only when it could not be avoided.’ Minutes later, when the train whistle sounded, the president turned toward House and ‘with a stern look, said coldly, “Goodbye, House.”‘ It was the last time the two men would ever see or talk to each other.”


It is sometimes said that books are friends to us. They are not. Books are books and friends are friends. But, there is real satisfaction in sharing a book with a friend. Enjoy the sunset of summer, and read on.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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