I read more books in 2015 than in any other year of my life (I exceeded my previous personal best – which was 2014 – in mid-December of this year and just kept going), and a great many of those books were squarely in my preferred genres of history and biography – in fact, as with a couple of other genres in this year-end round-up, I believe I read virtually every major new release work of history published in English in 2015. I read my share of monographs and scholarly books as well, but I concentrated on the stuff published by mainstream presses and aimed a mainstream audience, and I had a whale of a good time. The picking was very, very tough, but here’s the top titles from 2015:
10. The English and Their History by Robert Tombs (Knopf) – Gigantic, panoramic history of England come along with such regularity – and so regularly based on the same batch of secondary sources – that there’s a temptation to view them more as the re-issuing of textbooks than as new creations. But the saving difference is narrative wit, and in this Robert Tombs’s book shines; this really is a gigantic, panoramic history of England to own and re-read. You can read my full review here.
9.The Age of Catastrophe by Heinrich August Winkler (Yale University Press) & Out of Ashes by Konrad Jaurusch (Princeton University Press) – The 20th century in its broader scope got a large amount of critical attention from historians this year, with the undergirding thesis being that the one-two hammer-blows of the First and Second World Wars in many ways traumatized the entire century (a thesis that will perhaps be familiar to readers of the very first issue of Open Letters Monthly). These two enormous books deal with that trauma in eloquent and learned ways, and yet they read very differently, with Winkler a bit more concerned with the trauma and Jaurusch a bit more concerned with the recovery. Each immensely worth reading.
8. The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis (Harvard University Press) – The typical thumbnail view of the Byzantine Empire – that it was hyper-sensuous, hyper-corrupt, and prematurely senescent for most of its existence – has always annoyed its serious historians, and in this intelligent, compacted study, the real Byzantium gets a stunning narration. You can read my review here.
7. The End of the Cold War by Robert Service (Public Affairs) – Maybe the primary salient characteristic of the fifty-year period known as the Cold War was a depressing characteristic: its stability. It seemed poised to go on forever, which made the experience of living through its abrupt end all the more amazing. Robert Service (the great historian, not the great poet) here tells that amazing story with sure-handed erudition. You can read my full reviewhere
6. Black Earth by Timothy Snyder (Crown) – In this harrowing follow-up to his Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder continues to re-tell the story of the Holocaust in ways it’s never been told before, radically shifting conceptions of both its geography and its very nature. This is required reading about one of
the century’s signature traumas. You can read my full review here.
5. KL by Niklaus Wachsmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The actual beating heart of that signature trauma – the system of concentration and death camps strung throughout the short-lived Nazi Empire – has never had a more thorough and readable history than this devastating volume by Niklaus Wachsmann, in which he traces in relentless detail the administration of a nightmare. You can read my full reviewhere.
4. Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Viking) – Half a century after John Hersey’s Hiroshima changed – established, really – Western conceptions about the atomic bomb blast that destroyed its title city, Susan Southard here does a similarly searching and eloquent job with Hiroshima’s sister city in devastation, Nagasaki, and like Hersey, Southard tells most of her story by highlighting a handful of survivors and telling their incredible stories. You can read my full review here.
3. The Witches by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown) – The incredible story of the Salem Witch Trials has been told many, many times before, and even fans of her fantastic Cleopatra might have wondered what Stacy Schiff could possibly bring to the tale of madness and accusation in Salem that would warrant a new book. And the answer is the same as it was with the oft-chronicled Cleopatra: she brings her vivid storytelling art, her ability to craft an irresistibly thoughtful narrative. Were I still working in bookstores, I’d be handing a copy of this book to every person walking into the shop.
2. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, Nicholas Stargardt (Basic Books) – The subject of this intensely good book – the rise and fall of Nazi Germany – has likewise been written many times before, but much like Stacy Schiff, Nicholas Stargardt somehow manages to write about his subject with an energy and freshness of insight that makes it riveting all over again. You can read my full reviewhere
1. In These Times by Jenny Uglow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – I’ve never read a history of the Napoleonic Wars quite like this one, the Stevereads Best History of 2015; it’s the story, sifted from dozens of diaries and tranches of letters, of the people caught in this long and complicated conflict, and it’s a story that builds in nuance and intensity as it goes along, thanks to Jenny Uglow’s powerful narrative gifts. You can read my full review here.
This late in the year, for good or ill, the year’s publishing success stories are fairly well known – both “success” in terms of sales and “success” in terms of critical worth (and the rare, happy instances where the two coincide). So a negative review of one of these success stories jumps off the page, and recently in the Penny Press I noticed a distinct whiff of the iconoclastic.
It started small: in The New Republic, Kate Bolnick reviews Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, her history of the infamous Salem Witch Trials and at one point veers slightly away from the peals of universal praise the book has prompted:
Indeed, Schiff is so convincing about the personal motivations driving these powerful men, I was surprised to see her take up the longstanding feminist assertion that by making themselves “heard” the bewitched girls exhibited an unprecedented agency – America’s first feminist uprising. From where I sit, it seems more likely that an internalized misogyny compelled the young women to send their elders to their deaths, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century suffrage movement, when, as Schiff argues, “a different scourged encouraged [women] to raise their voices.”
It’s a minor thing – one quick paragraph in a review that’s otherwise entirely full of praise – but it stuck out; as far as I know, those have been the only words of even slight dissatisfaction that any reviewer in any major venue has directed at Schiff’s book. Over in the latest New York Review of Books, for instance, John Demos gives the book its customary wall-to-wall praise.
Ah, but elsewhere in that same New York Review of Books I found even more idol-tipping going on. The idol in the first instance being more the author than the book: Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East Bureau Chief for the Economist, reviews Heretic, the new book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has for years been one of the darlings of the more self-congratulatory echelons of the Republic of Letters, a Muslim woman who renounced her faith and risked her life by speaking and writing against the barbarities of her former ideological world.
Given such a biography, it was a bit startling to read Rodenbeck treat Heretic, refreshingly, like any other book – that it, roughly when he thinks it’s straying:
There are several problems with her approach. These include such troubling aspects as her use of unsound terminology, a surprisingly shaky grasp of how Muslims actually practice their faith, and a questionable understanding of the history and political background not only of Islam, but of the world at large.
But in purely literary terms, no chorus of praise has been more vocal and uniform than the critical reaction to Hanya Yanagihara’s massive novel A Little Life – which only served to heighten my interest when I realized that elsewhere in this NYRB, Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the best book-critics working today, wrote a piece on the book that was, to put it mildly, disenchanted. I started the piece eagerly – and was almost immediately frustrated, then irritated, then enraged.
Mendelsohn takes the novel to task for being a simple concatenation of the miseries of its main characters:
We know, alas, that the victims of abuse often end up unhappily imprisoned in cycles of (self-) abuse. But to keep showing this unhappy dynamic at work is not the same thing as creating a meaningful narrative about it. Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel and more like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.
Likewise he has plenty of negative things to say about the book’s actual prose:
The writing in this book is often atrocious, oscillating between the incoherently ungrammatical … and painfully strained attempts at “lyrical” effects … You wonder why the former, at least, wasn’t edited out – and why the striking weakness of the prose has gone unremarked by critics and prize juries.
(The ellipses were two singled-out lines from the book, each demonstrating the mentioned flaw; Mendelsohn knows perfectly well that such a trick – pulling a handful of lines out of a massive text – will work on any large novel ever written … why, I could show you sentences from The Golden Bowl that would make each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine … but he pulls it anyway with utter serenity)
And what of the dozens of Mendelsohn’s fellow reviewers (not to mention the book’s thousands of readers) who obviously didn’t consider sentence-level lapses worth mentioning in the face of the sheer power of the narrative? That mention of “critics and prize juries” should have set you to worrying, but Mendelsohn doesn’t leave things to chance: he addresses two of those fellow reviewers directly, Jon Michaud in The New Yorker and Garth Greenwell in The Atlantic, attacking the praise they lavished on the book. His strong implication is that he could have gone right down the line of such reviewers if he’d had the space and time.
Long before I got to this point in the piece, I’d realized that this isn’t book criticism – it’s simple bitchiness, of a bitterly disingenuous type. There is no chance – absolutely zero chance – that Mendelsohn would have written a review anything like this before Yanagihara’s novel reaped all its praise; this isn’t an assessment of the book, it’s a tetchy little gripe about bandwagon-jumping. And as if that weren’t bad enough, our one lone voice of critical sanity in a vast wasteland takes things one step further: he starts speculating on why the novel has been such a hit – after some incredibly condescending throat-clearing, that is:
It may be that the literary columns of the better general interest magazines are the wrong place to be looking for explanations of why this maudlin work has struck a nerve among readers and critics both. Recently, a colleague of mine at Bard College … drew my attention to an article from Psychology Today about a phenomenon that has been bemusing us and other professors we know: what the article refers to as “declining student resilience.”
And what are the details, you may ask, of this article that’s been bemusing Mendelsohn and his fellow academics? They revolve around coddled undergraduates who’ve begun checking themselves in to student counseling services to deal with the trauma of spotting a mouse in the dorm room or having a mean roommate. And while such examples may have sparked some tittering in the faculty lounge, Mendelsohn is quick to expound on the deeper problems they represent:
As comical as those particular instances may be, they remind you that many readers today have reached adulthood in educational institutions where a generalized sense of helplessness and acute anxiety have become the norm; places where, indeed, young people are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims: of their dates, their roommates, their professors, of institutions and history in general. In a culture where victimhood has become a claim of status, how could Yanagihara’s book – with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence – not provide a kind of comfort?
A quick Google-check of the thirty-something book reviewers who praised A Little Life in the major literary journals and “better general interest magazines” puts their average age at roughly forty-five. They’re not coddled, clueless adolescents afraid of mice. But it doesn’t matter to Mendelsohn, lost as he is in a fog of patronization: if you liked A Little Life, you’re not just wrong – you’re psychologically spongy, an addled student taking craven comfort from all the wrong things while Daniel Mendelsohn and his fellow adults look on, bemused. Right underneath its priggish, swanning outrage it’s actually a whopping insult to virtually all his equals in the world of professional book-reviewing. Equals who weren’t just wrong to like A Little Life despite its flaws but who are childishly ignorant if they liked it.
When I finished the piece, I was right away curious what those book-reviewing equals might make of it. John Powers of NPR, Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal, Jenny Davidson for Bookforum, and the list goes on – does it bother them, that Mendelsohn is saying their careful, well-articulated estimations of A Little Life are not only wrong but merit them a sidebar article in Psychology Today? Probably they all take it with admirable equanimity. For myself? Well, I too review books for a living, and I too was blown away by A Little Life – and this particular idol-bashing royally ticked me off.
Of course you all know where I stand: I have a very large, very roomy space in my heart reserved for nonfiction, so I’ve left Best Nonfiction of 2010 for last. This, too, was a crowded field – I read 97 works of military history alone this year, for instance. Books on every time period came to me, books on a host of historical figures major and very minor, books on trends, ideas, technology, science, nature, computers, business, gardening, and a dozen other things. And in all cases my criteria were unchanging – and stricter here than anywhere.
Nowhere is the insufficiency of mere Wiki-writing more evident and more merciless than in the writing of fact-based nonfiction, and these writers all seemed to know that; they went well beyond the staked borders of their topics and delivered of themselves as well, or delivered their subjects with much-needed clarity. I recommend all the wonderful books here in the ‘Best of’ section of our year-end roundup, but I recommend these particular books with just a sliver more enthusiasm than the rest.
10. Denys Wortman’s New York – The great artists who did their work quickly, under deadline, to supply the exploding periodical market of the early 20th century have never been given their due. Retrospectives on big advertising names like J. C. Leyendecker have made moves in the right direction, but of the men working in quick pencil-strokes to capture the zeitgeist, the book-buying public has seen comparatively little. This magnificent volume honoring the enormously talented Denys Wortman would thus be a cause for joy even if Wortman’s work weren’t so great. Luckily, it is – in scene after scene, he perfectly captures a now entirely vanished world of stoops and water-towers and fire escapes and an endless array of people, and he limns it all with a gentle, knowing humor. The reproduction quality here allows every minute decision of Wortman’s to be scrutinized and enjoyed, and that’s all the more amazing since he seems never to have made a bad one.
9. Dickinson by Helen Vendler – It’s a match made on Olympus: one of America’s greatest 19th century poets, a crafter of dreamily jagged verse badly in need of explication, gets a whole book’s worth of explication from one of the world’s greatest poetry critics. It’s signature Vendler work: she pours over the poems line by line, word by word, lavishing as much care and attention as the poet did herself (perhaps more? I’ve long had the impression that she found significances in Keats that he himself didn’t see) and yielding a multi-faceted reading richer and more rewarding than any Dickinson has ever had. If I had my way, Vendler would live forever and do a volume like this on every major poet in the world’s canon.
8. Ratification by Pauline Maier – In a book-market sludged to the eyeballs with sticky Founding Fathers pap, how refreshing it is to read this long, satisfying book about the state-by-state ratification of the Constitution, written (the book, not the Constitution! Our author isn’t quite that old!) by our greatest authority on the American Revolution. Bracing complexity is everywhere on display in this invigorating book, Meier’s best, and when you’re done reading it, you’re struck by how marvellously unlikely it is that the process worked at all. Many books have dealt with this subject, but none nearly so well as this one.
7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid Macullough – As far as opuses go, they don’t get much more magnum than this (included on a technicality because I read it this year!). Macullough tackles the whole incredible breadth of his subject with the gusto of a twenty-something graduate on his first book-contract trip to the Widener, and the result is a work of massive scholarship that’s nonetheless immediately approachable an even occasionally lighthearted (not an easy feat when dealing with a religion as soul-crushing and bloody as this one). I’ve had the stomach to read only four comprehensive histories of Christianity in my life, and this one is the only one of its caliber in English and may well be the best one ever written in any language. Certainly the wit, the perspective, and the erudition expended here are worlds better than their subject deserves.
6. The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegee – The modern reading world, caught in the revolution of the digital marketplace, is closer to the world Pettegee so spiritedly excavates than any previous era. Then, as now, established formats of books were under assault from a variety of new technologies and viewpoints, and then, as now, the universe of the written word seemed to be expanding in all directions faster than readers could adapt. Pettegee shows that they of course ultimately did adapt (he fills his pages with lively descriptions of all the geniuses, hucksters, and misfits who did the adapting); in addition to this book being first-rate history, it’s also quite accidentally (or is it an accident?) encouraging.
5. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff – How much more clearly can the paramount importance of execution be demonstrated than in Schiff’s fantastic biography of Cleopatra, a subject who’s received, by a conservative estimate, one million previous biographies? The facts of the last Egyptian queen’s life are well-trod – and yet Schiff makes it all feel new and fresh, almost solely through the sparkle and vigor of her prose. There’s a thought-provoking re-evaluation on virtually every page of this book, and the whole of it is about as entertaining as ancient history gets.
4. Americans in Paris by Charles Glass – This book matches a great subject – the thousands of Americans who for one reason or another were trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris for the duration of the Second World War – with a really talented writer of nonfiction, and the result is an absorbing examination of what incredible daily pressure does to people, how it forces them to be sometimes completely different from their usual selves, or sometimes heavily concentrated versions of themselves. Again, many previous books have covered this subject – but none so thoroughly, or with such a good ear for yarns.
3. American Caesars by Nigel Hamilton – The simplest temptation with this book would have been to treat it only as a high-spirited hoot: a modern version of Suetionius’ “Twelve Caesars,” substituting postwar American presidents for Roman emperors but keeping most of Suetonius’ angles and obsessions. And that level of entertainment is here in abundance (this is the most enjoyable book on American presidents you’re ever likely to read), but Hamilton delivers more than that, a surprisingly more passionate, heartfelt book, very much including his mandarin assessment of George W. Bush.
2. Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant – Really, this is probably the only worthy book anybody could write about the whole story of unrepentant coward and asshole Michael Vick’s dog-torturing ring – it’s the story of the dogs who survived and thrived with loving families, and it’s the story of those families, heroically patient and giving, who opened their homes and hearts in an effort to heal these dogs Vick had ordered tortured and fought. Reading this book isn’t quite as satisfying as would be reading a morning news report of Vick’s sudden and violent death, but it’s the next best thing.
1. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee – In the celebrated tradition of Zinzner’s Rats, Lice, and History, but at once grander in scope and more empathetic in tone, Mukherjee’s ‘biography’ of cancer utilizes dozens of patient profiles and interviews to shape a full-scale portrait of this most personal and devastating of all families of illness. The author’s dogged research and fieldwork is matched by the earnest grace of his prose. The combination creates a book of remarkable power and pathos, the single best work of nonfiction I read in 2010.