George Washington takes command of the Continental army. (Mount Vernon via Smithsonian)

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch; Flatiron Books (413 pages, $29.99)

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New York City has seen dark times, but in the spring and early summer of 1776 the outlook was especially grim. The Revolutionary War was in its early, chaotic days, the British fleet sailed en masse toward the city, and in a desperate defensive measure, General George Washington ordered thousands of his Continental troops into lower Manhattan. Almost a third of the city's citizens fled, and Washington's filthy, untrained and undisciplined soldiers quartered themselves in the elegant houses left behind. They were hungry, cold and scared, and they numbed their fear with drink, gambling and prostitutes. They were about to face the greatest military force in the world, outgunned and outmanned, fighting for a country that hadn't been created yet.

In hindsight, America's victory against the British seems like one of history's inevitabilities, but in the beginning it was anything but. And had a small group of pro-British conspirators had their way, the Glorious Cause might have lost its essential leader — George Washington — to imprisonment, execution or assassination.

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A friend mentioned that he found my approach to reading history so unusual that I thought I might write about it, briefly.

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Paramount Pictures

Too often the impulse when going through a reading list is to critique it, and point out the holes. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

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Yesterday the New York Times Book Review ran my new survey of books about military history. Here are some highlights:

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U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Gary Keen

How does the old joke go? “Nostalgia is heroin for the middle class.” Which explains why recent war-related fiction and nonfiction feels so punishing, the opposite of a relaxed, stoned haze – it is hard to get nostalgic about events still beating you on the head. This well-meaning literature gives a limited perspective, can’t reflect on the way life used to be.

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