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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My most-visited reviews
If you’ve been reading this blog for more than week or two, you’ve seen the pattern — that I typically post twice a week, including one nonfiction book and one novel. All told, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve produced a total of more than 250 book reviews out of 308 posts. Below, I’m listing the 10 most popular reviews in descending order of the number of visits. Six are nonfiction books and four are novels (including, uncharacteristically, one collection of short stories, which I tend to shun).
1. A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back. Written by the founder and former executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, who made a study of this topic for many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement came to the fore.
2. A review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. In telling the story of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and of the anti-semitic officials who headed the State Department, makes clear why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitler.
3. A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. A collection of five stories that span the time from Swedish detective Kurt Wallender’s rookie year on the police force to his retirement decades later. The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his many, complex psychological problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.
4. A review of The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Explores the racism rampant in America, and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, that dominated U.S. imperial policy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Focuses on the cruise of a U.S. battleship in 1905 carrying Secretary of War and Roosevelt’s “assistant president” William Howard Taft and a passel of Congressmen and Senators to extend the U.S. empire beyond the Philippines and onto the Asian mainland.
5. A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham. If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.
6. A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books in English published so far in the 21st Century. Lays bare the ugly reality of the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration it brought about, exploring both how they came about and how deeply they wound communities of color in the United States.
7. A review of The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A timely and brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy. Dissects the mythology that lies at the heart of Right-Wing economic ideology in America today, making it unmistakably clear that the so-called “job creators” lionized by Republicans achieved their success not through rugged individualism but within a society in which government lent them support in dozens of crucial ways.
8. A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, the U.S., and Afghanistan. The compelling conclusion of a trilogy that tells the story of Leo Demidov, a member of Stalin’s secret police as a young man. Involves a central character who closely resembles the legendary African-American Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson.
9. A review of Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, & Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn. In this delightful and illuminating memoir, the celebrated singer-organizer provides the reader with a front-row seat on history from the vantage-point of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle) to the UMWA (the Mineworkers Union) to the recent nationwide campaign to end immigrant family detention.
10. A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. The latest installment in the running saga of hereditary earl and Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, picking up the tale after a long hiatus following the murder of his wife.
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Tagged as Brian Miller, Chuck Collins, current-events, Elizabeth George, Erik Larson, Henning Mankell, Hitler, income inequality, Inspector Lynley, James Bradley, job creators, John Grisham, Kurt Wallender, Leo Demidov, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, Mike Lapham, Nazis, Paul Robeson, politics, president william howard taft, Right-Wing ideology, rise of hitler, si kahn, Teddy Roosevelt, Tom Rob Smith, War on Drugs, william howard taft