The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Like one of my favorites of last year, Code Talkers, this book covers a part of military history that isn't discussed enough (or at least, isn't in my experience). It opens on an anecdote from the Pearl Harbor attack when an African American navy member jumps into combat, saves people, gets high military awards, and then goes back to the cooking and cleaning crew since that's all African Americans were allowed to do on ships at the time. This sets the stage for the story of Port Chicago - a port where ammunitions and missiles and bombs were loaded from train cars onto ships and then off to fuel World War II. The work was dangerous and done entirely by African Americans. Eventually an explosion happens - almost 300 people die - and it's possibly because of the actions of white officers. After cleaning up body parts for a few days, the surviving crew is moved to another port and are asked to report to....load ammunitions and missiles and bombs. They refuse which escalates to 50 sailors being charged with mutiny. Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights activists get involved, and this story is interspersed with anecdotes about the different racism, discrimination, and disgusting injustice faced by different African American service members across the country. The book is powerfully moving, as most civil rights era stories are, but especially because this is a story that has rarely been told.
"[1940s America] did what they thought was best, which was stupid. And I forgave them for being stupid."
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream
It might be a stretch to call these women 'almost astronauts' - it would be more accurate to say 'Capable Women Denied Opportunities Because of 1960s Sexism.' While NASA was starting to test and prepare men to go into space, one man realized that women tend to weigh less and eat less food, and therefore could be cheaper to send into space. He got tentative permission to put some women through the same tests the male future astronauts were being put through - and they performed amazingly! The women started to get really excited about being (almost) astronauts - but NASA didn't ever intend for these women to be put into space. This conflict eventually led to a Congressional hearing where it was decided that NASA wasn't discriminating based on sex - astronauts had to be test pilots in the military, and the military didn't let women become test pilots, so women not being astronauts was entirely based on their test pilot ability which had nothing to do with sex. Um. Yeah. I spent a lot of my reading shaking my head so hard. I don't have the book with me, but the most important quote is definitely the one from President LBJ when he says the reason why we can't have female astronauts is because then Black men and other minorities would also think they could be astronauts. Um. Yeah.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
Everything I know about Imperial Russia I learned from the Disney movie Anastasia (I'm sure you're shocked to hear that it's not quite accurate) and second-hand by teaching Animal Farm (so I have the basics) and reading Russian literature (I really really hated Doctor Zhivago). This book is the longest and meatiest of the three, but when talking about the dismantling of an empire, you need some pages. The book starts with Tsar Nicholas I and ends with the final 2007 discovery of the last two Romanov remains. I don't know if I would recommend it to anyone who is already a Russian history buff, but for anyone who just wants to really and truly understand what the heck the difference between a Menshevik and Bolshevik actually is.