Newsweek/The Daily Beast
Dec 11, 2011
From Tina Brown to Simon Schama to Michelle Goldberg, Newsweek and Daily Beast contributors and writers pick their favorite books of the year.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga
A vivid, venal tale—couldn’t put it down. It’s about a rapacious real-estate developer pitted against a proud teacher determined never to leave a shabby apartment in the greedy, ruthless milieu of modern Mumbai.
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
One of the world’s great rulers finally gets the biography she deserves in this hugely enjoyable romp through the royal court, her prodigious love life, and the nitty gritty of just how she built up Russia.
The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts
In one irresistibly readable book, Roberts has done what I thought was impossible–given us the whole bloody second world war from the brass buttons of the generals down to the mud-filled trenches and stretching across the globe.
Bill Clinton’s Back to Work: Sure he’s my friend and mentor and former boss, but Bill Clinton is also America’s most gifted explainer and synthesizer. He makes a powerful case for, as he puts it “smart government for a strong economy.”
Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: A master of penetrating analysis, Lewis takes us deep into the subculture of quirky contrarians who saw the subprime meltdown coming.
Kathryn McGarr’s The Whole Damn Deal: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics: Can you imagine the current chairman of the Republican Party being asked to secretly advise President Obama? Me neither. But when Nancy Reagan called Strauss, patriotism trumped partisanship. From Stamford, Texas, to the Kremlin, McGarr takes us along with Strauss on one hell of a ride.
Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery: Our greatest president faced our greatest moral and military crisis. Foner unblinkingly shows that Lincoln was a politician to his marrow: slick, moderating, temporizing, compromising—qualities we denigrate today. No wonder we have no more Lincolns.
The most fascinating book I read this year was Deborah Baker’s stranger-than-fiction tale The Convert, about Margaret Marcus, a troubled, middle-class Jewish girl from Westchester who, in the early 1960s, changed her name to Maryam Jameelah, moved to Pakistan, and become an important theorist of radical Islam. It’s puzzling and haunting in all sorts of ways, particularly because, more than any book I know, it forces an understanding of how a woman who can’t find a place for herself in our world finds sustenance in the harsh strictures of fundamentalism.
The Joan Didion book that everyone is talking about this year is Blue Nights, her grief-ravaged memoir of her daughter’s death. But, amid the insanity of the Republican primary, I’ve been revisiting her decade-old essay collection Political Fictions, which contains a priceless piece about Newt Gingrich’s putative intellect and his obsession with management fads and gee-whiz futurism. Didion nailed the way Gingrich’s musings suggest “not the future but the past, the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square.”
Though it came out last year, I didn’t get to Jennifer Egan’s astonishing A Visit From the Goon Squad until February, and was thrilled when it won the Pulitzer Prize a few months later. I’m pretty sure if it had been written by Jonathan Egan, it would have received the sort of Great American Novel hype bestowed on Freedom, which was thematically similar but not nearly as good.
I was once asked what I thought was the most revealing document of the 20th century? “Keith Richards’ face,” I said. Life proves I was pretty much right, and that he can do the words as well as the music. There won’t ever be a better book on how a rock-and-roll band gets made and very nearly unmade, but it’s also a wild gallop through the times. You get the smell of vinegar on bad chips; the melee of the hotel room; you get human comedy; and you even get his recipe for shepherd’s pie. I also loved Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, the kind of brilliantly riffing collection that lets the essay form shout its worth in the age of the formless blog.
Because I waste so much time slogging through hideous political books, I tend to come late to novels. I finally got around to reading Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 offering, This Is Where I Leave You. Flat-out hysterical—which might not be what you’d expect from a book about a dysfunctional clan sitting shivah for its dearly departed patriarch. Then again, anyone who has ever suffered through a gathering of family in the wake of a death understands just how much weirdness bubbles up under such enforced intimacy. Read it, then gift it. Who doesn’t need a good chuckle these days?
Yes, I am the last literate person in the Western world to discover George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This is in part because I typically have no use for fantasy novels. (Dragons? Sorceresses? The undead? How are these things any weirder than the Iowa caucuses?) And yet I cannot put the books down, which is a problem seeing as how each runs in the neighborhood of 600, 700, 800 pages and weighs as much as a small child. I’m two thirds of the way through the third, A Storm of Swords, and am racing to catch up with my husband so he’ll stop taunting me with his knowledge of which characters are getting killed/raped/married/maimed/sold to slavers in coming chapters. Don’t overthink it, just indulge.
My favorite books of the year? Well, I am trying to write a biography of Robert E. Lee, and to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian (Believe it or not, you can get it in Russian on a Kindle, what would Lev Nikolayevitch have thought of that?), so my time to read at random for pure pleasure has been small and spent guiltily; however, I enjoyed Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great, which should be mandatory reading for those who suppose that Russia is permanently down and out (Beware, from time to time in history she emerges from hibernation like a bear, as she did under Catherine, then watch out!), an example of the kind of elegant book production that has almost vanished, as well as a combination of meticulous scholarship and gifted storytelling which is always rare, and in which Massie specializes.
I also read with great interest Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, revealing that it remains possible to write about a person with admiration while still recognizing his or her flaws, “warts and all,” as Cromwell told a painter about to do his portrait; and above all Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, which I read without a pause, a biography that is at once admiring and devastating, and full of material that I wouldn’t have thought even existed and of people who knew Hemingway whom I’d never heard of—an eye opener of a book, full of unexpected riches, fascinating digressions, and leaving one at the end wishing the book were longer, and thinking long and hard about the price of fame and success in America, and the dangers of seemingly getting everything you wanted out of life—it just may be the best book I’ve read this year, and certainly the best book I’ve read about an American writer in a long, long time.
Just finished Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel. At the core of the book lies this terrifying analogy: Israel as Pakistan, a country whose government has empowered a lawless, fanatical religious movement (in this case the militant settlers of the West Bank) that is now subverting the very state that empowered it. Is the analogy apt today? No. But Gorenberg makes a frighteningly convincing case that unless Israel ends the occupation, the analogy will become more appropriate with every passing year.
Open City by Teju Cole: A meditative and startlingly clear-eyed first novel about a Nigerian immigrant wandering around New York.
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson: An account of a Vermont kid breaking into the straight-edge scene in 1980s New York. The best and most lyrically written coming-of-age novel of the year.
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta: Spiotta’s third novel captures the washed-out landscape of Los Angeles with edgy precision. A riveting and enigmatically beautiful story of siblings, memory, and the transporting quality of rock and roll.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and Murder of a President, by Candace Millard. A fascinating tale, expertly told about the shooting of President James Garfield in 1881 and his tragic struggle to recover from his wounds during a long summer of national agony.
Millard sketches vibrant accounts of a crazed assassin, a brilliant young chief executive, and the bungling, arrogant doctors who ultimately killed the president. She provides riveting details about the medical technology of the time and forces fresh reminders of what the nation lost when Garfield succumbed just six months after his inauguration.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi. The author, professor of psychiatry at Tufts, suggests that voters shouldn’t show an automatic preference for potential leaders who count as reliably, consistently sane and sober. He makes a persuasive, counterintuitive case that certain types of mental illness (particularly bipolar disorder and depression) actually help prepare politicians, generals, and captains of industry for better crisis management, by encouraging realism, resilience, empathy, and creativity. He makes his case with vivid, intimate portraits of troubled but effective personalities ranging from Hitler to Churchill, Lincoln to Kennedy, and provides especially compelling perspectives on Civil War generals Sherman, McClellan, Lee, and Grant.
Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, by Steven Brill. The founder of Court TV reviews the ferocious and frustrating current struggle to reinvigorate American education. The portraits he provides of outsized personalities who play both constructive and damaging roles in the ongoing battles will simultaneously encourage and infuriate, conveying the message that school reform may be daunting, messy, and unimaginably complicated, but it’s not altogether impossible.
Edward Short’s Newman and His Contemporaries reminds us what a central figure Cardinal Newman was to Victorian intellectual and cultural life, whose relations with Gladstone, Thackeray, Matthew Arnold, his American friends, and many others are told with scholarship and wit in this highly engaging book.
Isaiah Berlin divided intellectuals into foxes (who knew everything about little things) and hedgehogs (who knew one big thing) and John Lewis Gaddis’s superb biography George F. Kennan reveals that Kennan was as foxy as its gets. He might have got a few little things wrong in his long life, but his service to the West in 1946–47, when he laid down the strategy of containing the USSR’s ambitions, was easily important enough to make everything else vanish.
Finally, if you like wartime political thrillers, you’ll love Andrew Rosenheim’s gripping Fear Itself, set in FDR’s Washington as America is drawn into World War II.
Avner Cohen’s The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb is a must read that reveals the truth about Israel’s nuclear deterrent and the balance of power in the Middle East. It is a useful antidote to the Iran hysteria of war-mongering politicians.
Steve Inskeep has written a powerful portrait of Pakistan’s largest and most violent city. Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi takes you to the terror capital of the world.
Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns, edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis—The best of H.L. Mencken, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, Mike Royko, and more in one book. I’m biased—I co-edited this anthology—but when it’s a collection of other columnists’ work it doesn’t feel like self-promotion to list it here. Plus, I genuinely love the contents—the classic storytelling in war, sports, politics, crime, and humor—and the rush of reading history written in the present tense.
The Great Leader by Jim Harrison—There’s plenty of the requisite road trips, food and sex that come with a Harrison novel, this time offered with the overlay of a detective story, focused on the hunt for a cult leader in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins—I’m not generally the kind of guy who sits around reading poetry, but Billy Collins is the exception—funny, smart and accessible, his evocative economy of language is a marvel. Much of this new collection reflects on loss and transition, death as a shadowy companion to life. Standouts for me include “Hangover” and “Table Talk.”
Unlikely Brothers by John Prendergast and Michael Mattocks—It’s sometimes said that friends are the family we choose. This unflinchingly honest book is a joint autobiography, parallel sections penned by two brothers of choice, a story spanning inner city Washington DC in the 1980s and peace negotiations in Africa. It captures the complexity of close relationships; the strange way that saving the world can sometimes seem more achievable than saving a friend in a time of trouble.
The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto—I came to this 2004 book about the founding of New York a bit late, but it is an exemplary work of history, breaking down the walls between the past and present with casual wit and close focus portraits, capturing an epic story on a human scale—and bringing my lower Manhattan neighborhood alive with the ghosts of Indians and Dutch settlers, surrounded by wilderness.
The Confidence Men—This inside account of the Obama economic team by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind contains enough damning on-the-record quotes to give it the ring of truth despite White House efforts to discredit the narrative of in-fighting and missed opportunities. Read it and weep. It reminds me of the post-Iraq invasion books that documented a similar failure to rise to the enormity of the problem, whether the insurgency was in Iraq or on Wall Street.
The Snowman–Page-turner crime novel by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo whose Columbo-like police investigator, Harry Hole, takes the reader on an odyssey that is both chilling and deeply human. Set in Oslo, it has all the Nordic noir that made Stieg Larsson such a hit, Nesbo a worthy successor, and his books ideal airplane reading.
Tabloid City by Pete Hamill, former editor of both The New York Post and The Daily News, spins a tale worthy of the tabloids but that also chronicles the uneasy transition of a veteran newspaperman into the digital age. The story takes place over 24 hours in New York City with more than a dozen characters that come and go in what was once the daily news cycle. For those who lament the passing of newspapers, along with egg creams and the Brooklyn Dodgers, this is for you.