If I were a superintendent of schools I would be inclined to advise  publishers of history texts  to invite Sarah Vowell to author my high school books. I suspect rather than turning away from a dry text of dates and  events, students might flock to the class to learn history from a contemporary author and storyteller who “gets it!”


Vowell’s  LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES  is extraordinary in its snarky telling of  the story of  the Marquis de Lafayette, adopted son of George Washington, and profound contributor to the successful outcome of  the Revolutionary  War. Vowell’s history is  contemporary, humorous, relatable, and in your face.

Let me tempt you.

” I would like to see the calamity at Valley Forge  as just the growing pains of a new nation. It has been a long time since the men and women serving in the armed forces of the world’s only superpower went naked because some crooked townies in upstate New York filched their uniforms.  But there’s still this combination of governmental ineptitude, shortsightedness, stinginess, corruption and neglect that affected the Continental Army before, during and after Valley Forge that 21st Century Americans are not entirely unfamiliar with.”

” Whatever the actual  root of our centuries- old, all-American inability to get out shit together, no one can deny that the flinty survivors of Valley Forge embodied another national trait that every man, woman and child in this  republic is supposed to have: backbone, self-reliance, grit. An attribute that comes in handy in this less-than-public-spirited republic the Continentals were fighting to bring about.”

Yes, Vowell offers some fine upbraiding and stern lectures, but she does not miss a molecule of the history of Lafayette, the French, Washington, Yorktown,  Saratoga, Franklin, Adams, Cornwallis, Gage, the Palace at Versailles, Von Stuben, Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox and Howe.

Even the ” Boss “ makes the cut, the battle at Monmouth having been fought on his home turf.  Vowell writes, ” It’s a different kind of independence, personal, not political, but one of the many things we won in that war fought over two centuries ago turned out to be the freedom of expression that let a dude from New Jersey  write a song like Thunder Road.

The American Revolution, bare bones,  readable, relatable and memorable. If only Mr. Stevens at South High School  had a copy of  LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES.  I would have known so much more, so much earlier!

Also by Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes, The Wordy Pilgrims, Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, Radio On.












Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book Frozen in Time ranks  among the best non-fiction works of survival and rescue during the Second World War. Furthermore,  the book  is testament to the strength of the human spirit.


Frozen in Time details the crash of a B-17 Flying Fortress  on the Greenland ice cap, while itself on a mission to find the crew of another downed plane. A Grumman Duck  amphibious rescue plane also vanishes, adding to the complexity of what becomes an epic tragedy.

Imagine, 9-men huddled in the tail section of a broken B-17 bomber, who during the first month on the ice, had no verification that anyone knew where they were!  They survived 148 days of 50-degree below zero weather with 100 mile per hour winds threatening to dump their makeshift shelter into bottomless crevasse only inches away. Then came the disappointment of many failed rescue attempts and further loss of life by those who tried to save them.  Zuckoff unveils a determination and fortitude of the human spirit that defies comprehension.

The dimension of this gripping survival story is enhanced with the telling of the parallel expedition that took place in 2012, to find the wreckage of the U.S. Coast Guard Grumman Duck rescue plane and to return home the remains of the heroic crew.




There are four other books of this genre and caliber that I highly recommend reading:

The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

The Terrible Hours, by Peter Mass, The Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton, The Sinking of the USS INDIANAPOLIS

FLYBOYS, by James Bradley, The Tragedy of Chichi Jima

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, A True Story of Survival and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.