The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream by Michael Wood

Books billed as “sweeping histories” tend—alas—to live up to the description: they are like giant brooms collecting events big and small and dumping them at your feet. Michael Wood’s book is the exception, full in scope but so engagingly written and so attuned to the lively details and personalities of the Middle Kingdom that the reader finishes the book both enthralled and more optimistic about the Chinese people (as opposed to their leadership) than most Western observers.

Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War by Jessica Donati

Barack Obama and Donald Trump agreed on at least one thing: get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Obama actually declared the Afghan war over in 2014 and promised to bring the military home in two years. The Taliban had other plans, and Obama was forced to turn over his side of the battle to U.S. Special Operations Forces (S.O.F.), which, as Jessica Donati points out, could “operate in the shadows with little accountability to the public.” Trump followed Obama’s playbook, all the while signing a peace deal with the Taliban in early 2020 that has done nothing to lessen the terror there.

Donati, a Wall Street Journal reporter who served as the paper’s bureau chief in Kabul, offers a compelling account of S.O.F. operations during these years, often putting herself at risk as she explores how violent and dysfunctional and ultimately ineffective these missions were. Joe Biden would be well advised to put Eagle Down on the top of his night-table book pile.

The Iron Sea: How the Allies Hunted and Destroyed Hitler’s Warships by Simon Read

By early 1941, Hitler’s battleships ruled the Atlantic, abetted by planes and U-boats and a steely determination to cut off England from the convoys critical to the survival of the island nation. In prose both gripping and stylish, Simon Read captures the feverish intent on both sides to lay claim to the Atlantic, a battle that sent thousands to their icy deaths and lasted almost throughout the war. “Britain’s lifelines remained in stark peril,” Read writes, “as long as Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Bismarck and Tirpitz remained afloat.”