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The 12 best nonfiction books I’ve read in 2012

This was going to be a list of 10 books, but I couldn’t resist adding another two. It’s been a great year for nonfiction.

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1. Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Review to be posted Dec. 10. Look for it!

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2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

A penetrating analysis of the racist underpinnings of the U.S. justice system, the result of the ill-conceived “war on drugs” and deep-seated racial fears that has led to the mass incarceration of people of color.

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3. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

This exceptionally brilliant book is the story of a long-lost poem and of the man who rediscovered it more than a thousand years later, helping to trigger an upheaval in medieval European thinking that came to be known as the Renaissance. The Swerve details the staggering impact of the poem, a 7,400-line masterpiece that laid out in minute detail the revolutionary worldview of a Greek philosopher whose greatest influence was felt two millennia after his death.

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4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492 — and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. In this revised edition of a 2006 bestseller, we learn that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.

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5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

An enthralling and deeply disturbing book that reads like a novel, this is a three-year study of life in a small Indian slum nestled between the new Mumbai International Airport and the five-star hotels clustered nearby. A quest to understand poverty and the ways people find to transcend it.

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6. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Through a geopolitical lens, Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, look a lot different than they do in most history books. Stand a few feet away from a globe and squint: if the globe is properly positioned, what you’ll see is one huge, three-tentacled landmass (Asia-Africa-Europe); a second, much smaller one that consists of two parts joined by a narrow connector (North and South America); and several even smaller bits of land scattered about on the periphery (Australia, Greenland, Japan, Indonesia). That’s the world as Robert D. Kaplan sees it in this illuminating study of world history and current events as influenced by geography.

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7. The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

A thoughtful and impeccably reasoned new book that goes straight to the heart of the conservative argument favoring limited government and coddling the rich. Rather than quibble about this program or that issue, or fasten on the transparently shoddy logic of a Republican budget that promises to reduce the federal deficit when in fact it will surely increase it, Miller and Lapham’s argument strikes at the fundamental values and assumptions underlying today’s conservatism: the myth rooted in the writing of novelist Ayn Rand of the superhuman “job creator.”

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8. Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

Focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

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9. Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy

The truly truly astonishing story — one with profound implications for development throughout the Global South — of how a retired Indian eye surgeon founded a nonprofit eye hospital in a southern Indian city in 1976 that is today “the largest and most productive blindness-prevention organization on the planet.” Equally important, Aravind also serves as a global resource center for opthalmology, training one out of every seven Indian eye doctors, consulting on management and technical issues with eye hospitals in 69 countries, and operating a state-of-the-art research center.

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10. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

The mind-boggling story of six European double agents who were “turned” or recruited by the British and played roles as large as those of any American general in the success of the Normandy invasion that opened up the Western Front and the path to Allied victory.

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11. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

As ambitious as it is digestible, and written in an easy, conversational style, The Signal and the Noise explores the ins and outs of predicting outcomes not just in politics, poker, and sports as well as the stock market, the economy, the 2008 financial meltdown, weather forecasting, earthquakes, epidemic disease, chess, climate change, and terrorism.

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12. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

A fascinating account grounded in scientific research of a class of diseases known as “zoonoses,” that is, animal in origin, that encompasses AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, SARS, H5N1 — and many others of of the world’s scariest diseases. The book recaptures the drama in the lives of the research scientists, physicians, veterinarians, and others who are on the front lines of humanity’s defense against disease.

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A mind-boggling tale: How America rearmed to win World War II

A review of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Since I was born six months before the U.S. entry into World War II, I grew up familiar with a long list of names — little-heard now, more than half a century later — that were associated with the U.S. role in the war that seized hold of Planet Earth for a half-dozen years and set America’s course as a superpower for the balance of the 20th Century. Jimmy Doolittle, Henry Kaiser, George Marshall, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbetts, and a host of others — every one of whom figures in the epic story so skillfully told in Freedom’s Forge.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Freedom’s Forge focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

Nothing since — not the Apollo moon landings, not the war in Vietnam, not even America’s protracted wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East — has come even remotely close to the magnitude of World War II. Over the five-year period from July 1940, when the U.S. began to rearm, until August 1945, when Japan surrendered, “America’s shipyards had launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and . . . almost 52 million tons of merchant shipping. Its factories turned out 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns — and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. As for aircraft, the United States had produced 324,750, averaging 170 a day since 1942.”

Can the human mind today even comprehend what must have been involved in manufacturing 300,000 airplanes and 100 aircraft carriers?

This staggering output of weapons came as a result of a profound transformation of the American economy, engineered in significant part by Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser. The two could hardly have been more different, and they didn’t like each other. Knudsen was a modest and unassuming Danish immigrant who worked closely with Henry Ford on the Model T and later built and ran General Motors into the world’s largest industrial corporation, dwarfing Ford’s output. Kaiser, a West Coast construction magnate who was the son of German immigrants, was flashy, outgoing, and immoderately persuasive — a model of self-promotion. Together with a host of others in and out of government, these two men led the conversion of the U.S. economy to unparalleled heights as the “arsenal of freedom.” Nonetheless, “[i]n 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France.”

Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom’s Forge, there was one discordant note. Author Arthur Herman, a free-market conservative who wrote this book as a visiting scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, advanced a political message throughout. That message could be summed up as “FDR, the New Deal, labor unions — bad. Business, businessmen, military leaders — good.” He could hardly have been more blatant. But the man writes well, and he did a stellar job of telling this unimaginably complex story between the covers of a single volume.

In the conclusion, Herman quotes Josef Stalin when he first met at Tehran with Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943: he “raised his glass in a toast ‘to American production, without which this war would have been lost.'” There could be no higher praise for capitalism, coming as it did from the dictator of the Communist Soviet Union.

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