2. Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution (Viking, 2013).

Americans tend to think in rather romantic terms of the revolution that gave birth to the nation. As Nathaniel Philbrick makes clear, there were no historical inevitabilities in play as the American colonists and the British Empire approached open war. Philbrick, a seasoned writer who knows how to tell a story, brings the Boston of 1775 to life in this book. He reveals a city at the center of some of the most momentous events of the modern world, but he gives careful attention to the cast of unforgettable characters that made Boston ripe for revolution. School children, at least those fortunate enough to be taught American history, often think of the Revolutionary War beginning at Lexington and Concord. But, as Philbrick shows, it was the full-scale Battle of Bunker Hill that made the revolution a war. Philbrick gives good attention to the debates and controversies that animated, infuriated, and eventually transformed loyal subjects of King George III into revolutionaries. The book begins with a 7-year-old John Quincy Adams standing next to his mother as he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance. You will not want to put the book down until you understand what that little boy saw on that day, and what it meant for the birth of the nation.

Excerpt:

The Revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement. The patriots had not wanted to create something new; they had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire. Enlightenment rhetoric from England had provided them with new ideological grist, but what they had really been about, particularly when it came to the yeoman farmers of the country towns, was defending the way of life their forefathers had secured after more than a century of struggle with the French and the Indians. But something has shifted with the arrival of the new general from Virginia. As Washington made clear in his orders of November 5, 1775, his army was already moving in directions that would have been unthinkable to the  New Englanders of old.”

3. Lee Sandlin, Storm Kings: The Untold Story of America’s First Tornado Chasers (Pantheon, 2013).

We now take the technological revolution in meteorology for granted. We expect to receive a timely warning from qualified authorities when severe weather approaches. We are thoroughly accustomed to watching hurricanes form far away in the eastern Atlantic and then gain in strength as they head towards North America. We assume that such knowledge has always been with us. But, as Lee Sandlin makes abundantly clear, when it comes to tornadoes, the inhabitants of North America have more often been victimized than previously understood. Storm Kings traces the story of America’s experience with tornadoes, starting with colonial times when such whirlwind storms caught the attention of no less than Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather. Sandlin then tells the remarkable tale of how Ben Franklin became the world’s leading expert in electricity (for which he saw no predictable use) and how this eventually led him to try to understand the nature of storms, including thunder and lightning and the vast devastation that came from the events known to early settlers as the “Storm King.” In telling the story, Sandlin traces the history of the American experience with tornadoes, painting in vivid detail the vast destruction, sheer terror, and unpredictability of these storms. He explains why North America, and the Great Plains and central portion of the United States in particular, experiences the vast majority of tornadoes known to humankind. Though tornadoes of some sort have appeared in other places of the world, only in the United States do they regularly appear in such strength, number, and intensity. In any given year, the United States will be visited by some 1,000 tornadoes. Most of these do little damage and are soon forgotten. A few, however, cause vast destruction and hundreds of deaths.