1. The Death Marches by Daniel Blatman – As bitterly mysterious as the Nazis “Final Solution” was, its death-throes were even more so. Through Blatman’s ground-breaking research, it becomes clear that the Nazi bigots simply couldn’t stop killing, even when the effort to do so, in manpower and materials, was literally suicidal. This book, an absolutely unforgettable portrait of pathology writ large, is tragic and jarring reading, not least because of the utter pointlessness of it all, the grinding waste. After the Nazis knew that their war was doomed – after any sound-minded man among them must have known that the must soon negotiate with the Allies – they rounded up thousands of Jews from their various concentration camps and put them on long, punitive marches from which only a fraction emerged alive – a gruesome, wildly insane measure which Blatman examines with admirable thoroughness.
2. Murder Most Foul by David Bevington – This is hardly the first book to examine the strange and lasting appeal of Shakespeare’s greatest play (not my favorite one, but there’s simply no denying its power with audiences), but it’s one of the most briskly comprehensive I’ve ever read, and it’s also a great deal of fun. Of course Bevington, being only human, can’t resist wondering just why it is, exactly, that this particular play – lopsided, too long, decidedly odd – should so consistently compel the imagination of generations. But the real strength of his book comes from avoiding theorizing in favor of analyzing – how the various manifestations of the play have reflected their various epochs, acting styles, etc. Read the book – then read the play again.
3. Rome by Robert Hughes – In the most exuberant, extended love-letter to a city since Peter Ackroyd’s London, Hughes – as embattled and irrepressible a prose stylist as ever, here at the top of his form – mixes the historical and the archeological with the personal to create a vibrantly readable portrait of the Eternal City. Hughes is one of those increasingly rare writers who seems to have read everything, seen everything, done everything, and formed fierce and endlessly entertaining opinions about it all. Reading his written instructions for how to make clam chowder would probably be a great time – reading his meditations on a storied place like Rome, which won his heart decades ago – well, that’s a spellbinding combination.
4. Art Museum (Phaidon) – This enormous, gorgeously-produced tome takes its readers – viewers, really – on a sumptuous guided tour of the greatest art museum imaginable, an art museum of the mind, comprising dozens of period-and-theme galleries and hundreds of ‘rooms,’ each filled with priceless artworks in virtually every medium. Book lovers like to imagine a personal library of unending proportions, shelves overflowing with every book every written. This is the art-lover’s equivalent, and it’s an utterly amazing tour de force of a coffee-table book – one of the finest things Phaidon’s ever produced, in a long catalogue of really fine things. Hang the expense: you really can’t be without this book.
5. Wild Dog Dreaming by Deborah Bird Rose – There’s an astounding, thought-provoking sensibility that winds its way through this book, a profound meditation on the meaning of humanity’s place on Earth. The author positions mankind as a malevolent event as much as a species: the embodiment of the current great age of extinction. And she takes as her lyric, tragic focus in these pages the dingoes of Australia, who are being hunted out of existence even while you’re reading this. In Rose’s careful handling, they stand in for all the species of animal being destroyed every week by a thoughtless and voracious humanity, and yet, despite everything, this isn’t ultimately a bitter book – amazingly, there’s hope and optimism in these pages.
6. The End by Ian Kershaw – WWII has been yielding a bumper-crop of superb volumes lately, and in this riveting, grim book, great Hitler biographer Kershaw autopsies the Third Reich in its death-throes, matching touching human details and impressive narrative sweep to give us a panoramic look at Germany and especially Berlin at the very end of the war. Kershaw knows all the old face-saving characterizations about how the entire German people was ensnared by Hitler the psychological magician, and he has little patience for such stuff in this powerful book, preferring instead to paint a picture of a nation so at odds with itself that it huge chunks of the populace saw not alternative but to keep fighting even after they knew such fighting was hopeless. This is stirring, vigorous history-writing at its best.
7. Catherine the Great by Robert Massie – Massie caps a tremendous career with something as far from the fabled ‘twilight style’ as you can get – this big book about a fascinating ruler who happened to be a woman has all the energy and crackle of a young man’s book (complete with sharp readings of primary sources and some judicious fight-picking), but delivered with the calm assurance of a lifetime’s experience. To a greater and fuller extent than any previous English language biographer, Massie gives us the real Catherine, the astute and canny administrator who could hold her own against all the age’s most powerful personalities (many of them inside her own country). It’s refreshing to read, especially after so many books that were only catalogues of her various lovers.
8. Ethan Allen by Willard Sterne Randall – The American Revoluion’s young hero-warrior hasn’t lacked for biographies in the last two hundred years, but this is far and away the best of them all, a hugely researched and gamely told story of a man who led the famous terrorist cell The Green Mountain Boys in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga at the outset of the American Revolution – and then spent pretty much every waking moment of the remainder of his life bending laws, physically intimidating people who disagreed with him, and obstructing every effort made by anybody around him to do anything at all. An entirely reprehensible figure, here given by Randall an even-handed but ultimately positive assessment that carries the reader along anyway, on the strength of the deep research and smooth writing.
9. Livia, Empress of Rome by Matthew Dennison – One long virtuoso acting performance by the great Sian Phillips a generation ago in the BBC production of “I, Claudius” has cemented Livia, wife of Augustus, in the popular imagination as a scheming comic book super-villain, complete with melodrama, suppressed humanity, and great one-liners. Dennison’s fast-paced, clear-headed book does the best job I’ve ever seen at giving readers the real flesh-and-blood Livia, who might not be as interesting as Robert Graves’ smiling mass murder (who could be, after all?) but sure is more believable.
10. Pacific Crucible by Ian Toll – Even after 70 years and one unjustly overlooked HBO mini-series, the Pacific theater of WWII still takes a back seat to its more famous sibling, the assault on Hitler’s Festung Europa. This great book of Toll’s (his best one yet – no small praise, considering how fantastic his others have been) won’t change that (nothing much beats the drama of fighting a mad conqueror on the fields of France – just ask the French about Agincourt), but it’s yet another brilliant addition to this year’s outpouring of memorable WWII histories.