Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall, Random House, 2012

Embers of War is an encompassing, lucid account of the 40-year arc in which America’s Southeast Asian adventure became inevitable. Fredrik Logevall, who teaches at Cornell University, has marshaled his facts as adroitly as Vo Nguyen Giap parked his howitzers at Dien Bien Phu—which means “Big Frontier Administrative Center.”

This is only one of many markers of the author’s eye for detail; another is a reference to Ho Chi Minh’s post–World War II offer to U.S. officials of Cam Ranh Bay as a naval base site. Logevall’s prose is clean, his logic relentless, his tone unsparing, his vision broad and deep, his empathy expansive. Even though you know how it ends—and it ends at what many deem the beginning, in 1959—the story he tells is compelling.

—Michael Dolan