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Books of the year 2006
Fighting to be tops
Dec 7th 2006
From The Economist print edition 7th December 2006
History, politics, science, business, biography, memoir and fiction.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution
By Hugh Brogan. Profile; 704 pages; £30. To be published in America by Yale University Press in March
The fruit of a lifetime’s scholarship by a distinguished British historian of America, the first proper life of Tocqueville in English has all the insight and human richness of great 19th-century fiction. Hugh Brogan rescues Tocqueville from sanctification by the right and contemptuous disregard by the left, giving us back the man, his times and his writing.
Mellon: An American Life
By David Cannadine. Knopf; 743 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30
Andrew Mellon was probably the least-known and the most under-appreciated of America’s great men. The impact that this philanthropist, politician and banking tycoon had on his country was wider and far more beneficial than is generally believed. A superb biography.
The Life of George Mackay Brown: Through the Eye of a Needle
By Maggie Fergusson. John Murray; 368 pages; $45 and £25
Maggie Fergusson carefully lays out the literary world of Scotland’s greatest 20th-century poet: the remote Orkney islands where he was born and which he almost never left, their myths and their long history. Stimulating and elegantly written.
Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment
By David Bodanis. Crown; 312 pages; $24.95. Little, Brown; £17.99
Emilie du Châtelet was a more rigorous thinker, a better writer, a cleverer mathematician, a more faithful lover and a far kinder and deeper person than her famous lover, Voltaire. A belated and fascinating treatment of a strangely neglected story by the winner of the 2006 Aventis prize for science writing
A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings
By Stella Tillyard. Random House; 384 pages; $26.95. Chatto & Windus; £20
An intimate account, by the author of the magnificent “Aristocrats”, of how George III’s eight brothers and sisters were every bit as troublesome as the American colonists who plagued his reign.
Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man
By Claire Tomalin. Viking; 512 pages; £25. To be published in America by Penguin Press in January
Fresh from her prize-winning “Pepys”, Claire Tomalin focuses on Thomas Hardy’s poetry as well as his novels and draws the reader deeply into his emotional universe. A model biography.
Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary
By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. Norton; 670 pages; $35 and £22.99
Khrushchev wanted a resolution to the contest over Berlin, yet he chose the most dangerous way possible to force one: via nuclear confrontation in Cuba. Unsettling insights into some of the most dangerous geopolitical crises of the time.
The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939
By Antony Beevor. Penguin Press; 352 pages; $17. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £25
A quarter-century after he wrote it, Antony Beevor reworks his epic study of the Spanish civil war and challenges many of the conflict’s most enduring myths, including the mystique of the republican cause.
Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution
By Victor Sebestyen. Pantheon; 368 pages; $26. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £20
Magisterial account of a doomed uprising whose repercussions still shape today’s Europe. Vividly written with a driving narrative pace, it should become the standard work on the revolution.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy
By Adam Tooze. Allen Lane; 832 pages; £30. To be published in America by Viking in March
A highly readable mix of military and strategic history with some welcome insights into the making of economic history.
The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade
By William St Clair. Profile Books; 288 pages; £16.99
Although 100,000 people passed through it each year, Cape Coast Castle, the Ghanaian capital of the British slave trade, was largely unknown to the outside world. A welcome addition to the study of trans-atlantic slave cargoes.
The Trial of Queen Caroline: The Scandalous Affair that Nearly Ended a Monarchy
By Jane Robins. Free Press; 384 pages; $27.50. Published in Britain as “Rebel Queen: The Trial of Caroline”; Simon & Schuster; £20
A young woman weds the Prince of Wales and finds that there are three in the marriage. She seeks solace in the arms of a foreigner, attracts intense media attention, becomes the darling of the people, and after proceedings for divorce, dies suddenly. For sheer entertainment and political theatre, the story of Caroline of Brunswick far outstrips the tale of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Politics and current affairs
Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
By Robert Kagan. Knopf; 544 pages; $30. Atlantic Books; £25
An absorbing and eye-opening interpretation of American foreign policy which argues that even before America was a nation its leaders anticipated that it was destined to be the dominant global power. Highly readable and full of information that will be new even to specialists.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright. Knopf; 480 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £20
An impressive addition to the over-crowded world of al-Qaeda studies. Thoughtful and vividly written, this book traces the history of Islamic fundamentalism and brings to life the jihadists who conceived the attack on the twin towers and the officers of the CIA and FBI whose rivalries undermined efforts to thwart it.
The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11
By Ron Suskind. Simon & Schuster; 384 pages; $27 and £18.99
A well-written, fast-paced account of the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror, filled with fascinating new material on the key figures, including their fighting and feuding.
Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror
By Michael Burleigh. HarperCollins; 576 pages; $27.95. HarperPress; £25
A clever, honest and often funny analysis of the confrontation throughout the 20th century between religion and politics. It will bring comfort to neither the religious nor the secular.
China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future-and the Challenge for America
By James Kynge. Houghton Mifflin; 288 pages; $25. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £18.99
With a fresh perspective and a fine eye for arresting detail, James Kynge brings alive all the complexities, contradictions and characters that are the features of China’s whirlwind development.
In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India
By Edward Luce. Doubleday; 352 pages; $26. Little, Brown; £20
India’s strengths lie not in its religious traditions, but in its history of pluralism and the vibrancy of its democracy, argues Edward Luce. A perceptive and witty book that is set to become the definitive generalist’s account of India’s political, economic and social development and its future prospects.
The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall
By Ian Bremmer. Simon & Schuster; 320 pages; $26 and £17.99
How to turn authoritarian regimes into stable, open democracies. Ian Bremmer, whose Eurasia Group advises on political risk, sums up the challenge in a simple graphic that is this year’s tipping point.
Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao
By Margaret MacMillan. John Murray; 384 pages; £25. To be published in America as “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” by Random House in February
In an impressive follow-up to her magisterial “Paris 1919”, Margaret MacMillan presents the grand vision and petty deceits that accompanied Richard Nixon on his visit to China in 1972.
White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
By William Easterly. Penguin Press; 448 pages; $27.95. Oxford University Press; £16.99
A compelling examination of the failure of foreign aid. William Easterly argues that “big pushes”, such as those proposed by Jeffrey Sachs and the UN, never work, and argues instead for a series of “little pushes”. You need only look at what drives some of the poorest parts of Africa.
The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working
By Robert Calderisi. Palgrave Macmillan; 256 pages; $24.95. Yale University Press; £18.99
Robert Calderisi has worked for the World Bank for more than 20 years, and is equally at home in Ouagadougou or Washington. Differing in style, if not in substance, from William Easterly’s book on the same subject, Mr Calderisi’s is a fluent, deeply personal account of how aid has failed Africa, and how Africa, so often, has managed to fail itself.
Science and technology
The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity
By James Lovelock. Basic Books; 176 pages; $25. Allen Lane; £16.99
In his fourth book about the Gaia theory, James Lovelock, a British scientist, dismisses biomass fuels, wind farms, solar energy and fuel-cell innovations as technologies unlikely to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions in time to save the planet. An ardent environmentalist takes an unexpected yet well-reasoned stance in favour of nuclear energy as the only energy source capable of meeting our needs in time to prevent catastrophe.
The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin; 416 pages; $27. Bantam; £20
Atheists will love Richard Dawkins’s incisive logic and rapier wit and theists will find few better tests of the robustness of their faith. Even agnostics, who claim to have no opinion on God, may be persuaded that their position is untenable waffle.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan. Penguin Press; 464 pages; $26.95. Bloomsbury; £12.99
The best of a new crop of books that look at the politics, ethics and business of food production.
The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
By Lee Smolin. Houghton Mifflin; 416 pages; £26. Allen Lane; £20
String theory has dominated theoretical physics for the past 20 years. Unfortunately its promise remains unfulfilled, leading Lee Smolin to conclude that string theory is unscientific; not only that, he regards it as mere conjecture and unworthy of being called a theory at all.
Fiction and memoirs
By Irène Némirovsky. Knopf; 416 pages; $25. Chatto & Windus; £16.99
A poignant account of an affair that didn’t quite happen between a German officer and an unhappy French wife. An epic that lingers, by a woman who died at Auschwitz before she could finish it.
The Emperor’s Children
By Claire Messud. Knopf; 431 pages; $25. Picador; £14.99
A comedy of manners set in the months immediately before and after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks and involving three bright young things who work in the New York media. The surprise is that such an obvious and overworked cliché can be transformed into so intelligent and unsparing a piece of fiction.
House of Meetings
By Martin Amis. Knopf; 288 pages; $23. Jonathan Cape; £15.99
A bitter love triangle set against the larger bitterness of Stalin’s gulags. A stunning marriage of the personal and the public, it marks a welcome return to form for Martin Amis’s passionate imagination.
By Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin; 192 pages; $24. Jonathan Cape; £10
Dying as an art form, by the most creative novelist in America today.
Running for the Hills: Growing Up on My Mother’s Sheep Farm in Wales
By Horatio Clare. Scribner; 288 pages; $24. John Murray; £14.99
A poetic memoir of an unconventional up-bringing on a Welsh hill farm and a forgiving tribute to two utterly different parents who pay a price for following their hearts. Mud, sweat and tears.
The Meaning of Night: A Confession
By Michael Cox. Norton; 672 pages; $25.95. John Murray; £17.99
A Victorian mystery with a striking beginning: “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” Will appeal to fans of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke and Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal and the White”.
The Ruby in her Navel
By Barry Unsworth. Nan A. Talese; 416 pages; $26. Hamish Hamilton; £17.99
A search for self-knowledge set in 12th-century Sicily amid Christian-Muslim tension. Surprisingly tender.
By James Lasdun. Norton; 224 pages; $23.95. Jonathan Cape; £14.99
James Lasdun’s new novel opens with a drenching in red wine and ends with the spilling of blood. As in his earlier book, “The Horned Man”, an Economist book of the year in 2002, “Seven Lies” combines the knuckle-whitening tension of a witty literary thriller with the precision of a surgeon seeking to tease out rotten flesh.
Wizard of the Crow
By Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Pantheon; 784 pages; $30. Harvill Secker; £18.99
In this sprawling farce, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translating himself from his original Gikuyu having stretched his language as no one else has done, portrays a wizard who brings about the demise of a dictator and gives hope to his country, the mythical Free Republic of Aburiria. Africa in all its splendour, squalor, economic malaise and venality, as portrayed by a theatrical magical realist who now lives in exile. In Africa, big men don’t care to be laughed at.
Culture and digressions
By Bernard Williams. Yale University Press; 192 pages; $30 and £19.99
Brilliant essays on Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Janacek, and, above all, Wagner, by one of Britain’s leading philosophers. A wonderful example of how intelligence can illuminate musical appreciation.
Journey Through Great Britain
By Iqbal Ahmed. Coldstream; 190 pages; £9.95
A deceptively simple account of travels in Britain by a Kashmiri immigrant. It shows the British as others see them-not as they think they are.
Will & Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life
By Dominic Dromgoole. Allen Lane; 304 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Pegasus Books in May
The artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London raises two fingers to academia, the heritage industry and the genteel tendencies of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and along the way touches both rapture and despair.
District and Circle
By Seamus Heaney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 96 pages; $20. Faber and Faber; £12.99
The Irish Nobel laureate’s new poetry collection is his best in years.
The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles
By Martin Gayford. Little, Brown; 352 pages; $24.99. Viking; £18.99
Two more mismatched housemates than Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin would be hard to find. Yet for a while they lived together and did some of their best work, until they fell out. Sunny side down.
The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History and Culture of Clouds
By Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Perigee; 304 pages; $19.95. Sceptre; £12.99
Usually a metaphor for sadness and confusion, clouds are often seen as spoiling the weather, rather than being one of its most lovable and interesting aspects. An endearing and surprising bestseller.
Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection
By George Black. Random House; 272 pages; $23.95
Nothing casts quite like a bamboo fishing rod. The age-old battle between perfectionism and economics as seen through the life of Eustis Edwards and the Perfection, the greatest fly rod ever made.