It was a spotty year for another of my favorite genres, history (books, that is – actual history broke somewhat on the side of the good guys, for a change), but there were unmistakable highlights, the top ten of which were these:
10. The Twilight War by David Crist – In this muscular, incredibly readable, and very detailed account of the tangled interactions of the United States and Iran since the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Crist does a completely masterful job of broad-strokes scene-setting, gripping action-narration, and most of all, extremely perceptive character analysis (as might be expected considering the subject, the bulk of the book concerns the Reagan administration, and it’s excellent on that front too) – adding up to that rarest of reading phenomena: a long book you’ll wish were even longer.
9. The Second World War by Anthony Beevor
8. From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra – This author briefly blazed through the freelance-review firmament by correctly picking a fight with bloated toff Niall Fergusson about his book Civilization: The West and the Rest (the self-satisfied fatuity of which was rendered all the more bitter by its author’s undeniable ability to do brilliant work). Now Mishra turns to epic history himself, writing this magisterial account of the revolutions (and their makers) that flooded into the void left behind by retreating imperialism.
7. How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price – The hook, the marketing catch of Price’s book is a fun look at all the non-reading uses to which Victorians (and a smattering of Edwardians) put their books, but Price ranges far beyond that gimmick, presenting an absorbing look at how the modern world’s most vigorously inquisitive era encountered what it read.
6. American Empire by Joshua Freeman – The Penguin History of the United States notches another victory with Freeman’s dense-but-readable American Empire, which chronicles the establishment of the United States as an epochal world power in the wake of WWII. This is oft-trod ground, but Freeman brings fresh energy to it, especially in dealing with the post-Watergate era.
5. The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton by Berton Kaufman
4. The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel – The always-provocative Kandel spins out many controversial interpretations in this fantastic and very detailed study of the birth of modernity in 1900 Vienna, but the book’s primary attraction is, perhaps oddly, Kandel’s lively, fluid prose style. All the usual Viennese subjects are here, from Kimt to Freud, but everything is super-charged with vital new perspectives. This is as much a book about human inquiry in any time period as it is about Austria at the turn of the 20th Century – and on both headings it’s utterly fascinating.
3. Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown
2. The Lost History of 1914 by Jack Beatty
1. The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy – Our authors walk a fine line between history and straight-up journalism – they risk the latter because they write informal, easy prose (although they lack journalism’s hideous concatenation of rudimentary grammar and syntax errors), but they qualify for the former through sheer force of insight – and even, at the oddest moments, a touch or two of gravitas. The subject has exceedingly narrow parameters: the ‘club’ of living U.S. Presidents, and their approach is, as fair as it can hope to be considering that fact that Gibbs and Duffy had to live through all of this history when it was still headlines. What emerges from all these anecdotes and incidents is, amazingly, a very valuable history of power – and Steveread’s Best History of 2012.