Books of the year 2005(The Economist)

Books of the year 2005(The Economist, Dec 8th 2005)


The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson. By Roger Knight. Basic Books; 874 pages; $35. Penguin/Allen Lane; £30

Drawing more thoroughly than any previous writer on the material uncovered by the Royal Naval Museum's “The Nelson Letters Project”, Roger Knight paints a wonderfully clear portrait of a complex man, placed squarely in his own time. This superb work is the definitive Nelson biography.

The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life. By Fred Siegel. Encounter Books; 408 pages; $26.95

Fred Siegel's gripping and persuasive account of the reign of Rudolph Giuliani analyses how New York's mayor transformed a city in seemingly irresistible decline by confronting the conventional wisdom of two special-interest groups, the public-sector unions and Manhattan's liberals.

Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg. By Hugh Barnes. Profile Books; 300 pages; £16.99. To be published in America as “The Stolen Prince” by Ecco in June 2006

Alexander Pushkin's great-grandfather was an African slave, adopted by Peter the Great, who became Russia's Othello. An intriguing biography of a fascinating subject.

Mao: The Unknown Story. By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Knopf; 814 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £25

A highly controversial biography, more than a decade in the making, by the author of “Wild Swans” and her husband, which portrays Mao as a ruthless and bloody megalomaniac of unremitting evil.

Matisse the Master—A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. By Hilary Spurling. Knopf; 512 pages; $40. Hamish Hamilton; £25

Matisse's detractors used to praise his bourgeois respectability while condemning his art. In the second volume of her life of the artist, Hilary Spurling proves just how much Matisse's artistic ideas cost him and his family. No more Mr Nice Guy.

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of the End of Empire in Kenya. By Caroline Elkins. Henry Holt; 496 pages; $27.50. Published in Britain as “Britain's Gulag”; Jonathan Cape; £20

A controversial account of how Britain committed men, arms, the courts and the hangman to defend the political and economic status quo in 1950s Kenya and to destroy the nascent Kikuyu independence movement. The effort failed, but left a bitter memory.

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. By Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin; 468 pages; $26.95. Macmillan; £20

In his account of the movement to end the slave trade in the British empire, Adam Hochschild spares us nothing of the awfulness of the Atlantic traffic and the cruelties that awaited slaves in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. But his true focus is the courage and moral clarity of the anti-slave campaigners. Not an enjoyable read, but a stirring and unforgettable one—which may be the greater achievement.

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. By Stacy Schiff. Henry Holt; 512 pages; $30

An ebullient account of Benjamin Franklin's years spent raising money, men and arms from the French king. How a new and disorganised country with very little leverage wrangled so much from a sceptical Europe is one of the great stories of early American history. Stacy Schiff tells the tale remarkably well.

Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World. By Hugh Pope. Overlook; 432 pages; $35. Duckworth; £20

In a quest that takes him from the grim battlefronts of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan to secret encounters with Turkic-speaking Uighur nationalists in China, Hugh Pope seeks to unearth the common strands that link the 140m Turkic speakers across the globe. An ambitious book, and a highly accomplished one.

A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE. By Sarah Helm. Little, Brown; 496 pages; £20

A thorough and fascinating reconstruction of one of the less heroic episodes of the second world war, in which more than three dozen young women were sent by Maurice Buckmaster, an incompetent official in Britain's Special Operations Executive, to be agents behind enemy lines. Almost all of them were swiftly killed.

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. By Simon Schama. BBC Books; 407 pages; £20. To be published in America by HarperCollins in May 2006

Rather than take the easy route, Simon Schama deploys all his energies in the service of an episode that did not even rate a footnote in his panoramic “A History of Britain”. The noble but half-baked attempt to plant a colony of freed American slaves in the west African state of Sierra Leone at the end of the American war of independence makes for a thought-provoking tale.

Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle. By Juliet Barker. Little, Brown; 460 pages; £20

In her account of the battle of Agincourt, Juliet Barker never forgets that war is fought by human beings. All the terror, dust and dirt of military conflict are present in this quite wonderfully vivid, clear and involving book that is destined to become the classic account of the epic 1415 encounter between the English and the French.

The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. By Sean Wilentz. Norton; 992 pages; $35

A dense, authoritative and well-written study about the long struggle to achieve democracy in America. From the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Missouri Compromise to the election of Abraham Lincoln, every development is given careful study by Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor.

Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. By John Dunn. Atlantic Books; 246 pages; £16.99. To be published in America by Grove Atlantic in January

By blending history and ideas, and bringing alive all the contemporary arguments for and against democracy, particularly in the American and French revolutions, John Dunn offers a triumphant portrait of how government by the people first began and what it has become. A rich and subtle essay.

Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong for America. By Cass R. Sunstein. Basic Books; 272 pages; $26 and $15.50

Behind the façade of agreement about basic principles lie deep disagreements about the meaning of the American constitution, the role of the Supreme Court and the direction in which America itself should be moving. A concise and illuminating guide.

Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. By Anthony Shadid. Henry Holt; 448 pages; $26

It is not easy to understand fully what is going on in Iraq; still less to make any accurate predictions about how it will end. Thank goodness, then, for those reporters, both Iraqi and western, who are prepared to take risks in search of a more nuanced reality. Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post is one of the best.

The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq. By George Packer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 450 pages; $26. To be published in Britain by Faber and Faber in February

A devastating critique of the way the American invasion of Iraq has been run, by one member of that tiny, ambivalent camp of pro-war liberals, who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein while also voting for Al Gore. A thoughtful expansion of the author's reports in the New Yorker.

I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. By Michela Wrong. HarperCollins; 448 pages; $25.95. Fourth Estate; £16.99.

Harsh, inhospitable, and hotter than anyone can imagine, craggy mountainous Eritrea, clinging to the Horn of Africa, seems to offer nothing to speak of. But it has history; and what a history, as Michela Wrong's portrait clearly shows. “In fact,” says one Eritrean academic whom she quotes, “that's all it has.”

In the Shadow of Swords: How Islamic Terrorists Declared War on Australia. By Sally Neighbour. HarperCollins Australia; 432 pages; A$24.95

A thoughtful contribution to the ever-expanding library of books on terror, Sally Neighbour's new book offers an insightful account of Australia's September 11th, the 2002 Bali bombing. Surely a book that deserves wider distribution.

Against the Flow. By Samuel Brittan. Atlantic Books; 385 pages; £25

A peerless economic and political commentator, 71-year-old Samuel Brittan makes the case, both moral and economic, for individuals over collectives, and for markets over coercion—ideas that put him at odds with conservatives as well as with liberals. This combination of essays defies all categories. Yet it all fits together, and quite brilliantly.

Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story. By Kurt Eichenwald. Broadway Books; 768 pages; $26

Enron has become a byword for all that was wrong with American business at the start of this century. If you want to know why, this gripping account is the book for you.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. William Morrow; 256 pages; $25.95. Penguin/Allen Lane; £20

Many economists don't care whether sumo wrestling is fixed, or whether drug dealers prefer to live with their mothers. Steven Levitt proves that they should. This book is a delight; it educates, surprises and amuses.

DisneyWar. By James B. Stewart. Simon & Schuster; 592 pages; $29.95 and £20

The contrast between Disney's fairytales for children and the personal hatreds and betrayals that play out at its headquarters in Burbank, California, could hardly be more striking. James Stewart lays bare the inner workings of the company in a history that is as much farce as it is a morality tale.

The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets. Edited by William N. Goetzmann and K. Geert Rouwenhorst. Oxford University Press; 416 pages; $50 and £30

An academic history of the development of financial markets, from the invention of interest and Roman shares to 20th-century bonds, this book has more attractive pictures than mind-boggling equations. Possibly the first book designed expressly for Wall Street coffee tables.

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. By John Battelle. Portfolio; 288 pages; $25.95. Nicholas Brealey; £16.99

A compelling, if insufficiently critical, story of the internet search-engine company's rise to world domination. In addition to his colourful portraits of the company's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, John Battelle offers provocative thoughts aplenty about where both the company and the information economy are heading.

Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. By Tim Parks. Norton; 224 pages; $22.95. Profile Business; £15.99

Tim Parks is a polymath among authors; a prolific novelist, translator, essayist and memoirist, as well as an authoritative writer about football. His portrait of Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici, the two greatest celebrities in the history of banking, rivalled only by Nathan Rothschild, extends his range even further and is a model for all writers who want also to be economic historians.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. By Jared Diamond. Viking Books; 575 pages; $29.95. Penguin/Allen Lane; £20

Throughout history there are many examples of societies that have collapsed and never recovered. As sharp and readable as ever, Jared Diamond analyses the factors that cause these implosions, in a compelling synthesis of anthropology, archaeology, ecology and political science that is also a plea to save the environment. Food for the brain.

The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change. By Tim Flannery. Text Publishing; 384 pages; A$32.95. To be published in America by Atlantic Books and in Britain by Penguin/Allen Lane, both in March

Tim Flannery's Stygian warning about the dangers of ignoring climate change has united academics and politicians in Australia, where the book was published earlier this year. Stay ahead of the curve—and the coming brouhaha—by reading the book before it is published in America and Britain next spring.

Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos. By Michio Kaku. Doubleday; 448 pages; $27.95. Penguin/Allen Lane; £8.99.

Using the latest astronomical data, Michio Kaku explores the possibility that we might one day make the journey from our universe to another, via wormholes and dimensional portals.

Dr Peter Scardino's Prostate Book: The Complete Guide to Overcoming Prostate Cancer, Prostatitis, and BPH. By Peter T. Scardino and Judith Kelman. Avery Publishing; 496 pages; $27.95. Published in Britain as “The Prostate: An Owner's Manual”; Michael Joseph; £14.99

A detailed and well-presented guide to the function—and malfunction—of the prostate gland, by the surgeon who treated Vernon Jordan, James Robinson, General Norman Schwarzkopf and Rudolph Giuliani.

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. By Nick Lane. Oxford University Press; 368 pages; $30 and £18.99

For 2 billion years, bacteria ruled the Earth without generating any real complexity—a condition that may still grip life on other planets. Then the union of two bacterial cells led to an evolutionary big bang, from which algae, fungi, plants and animals emerged. Full of startling insights into the nature and evolution of life as we know it.

The March. By E.L. Doctorow. Random House; 384 pages; $25.95. To be published in Britain by Little, Brown in January

A brilliantly imagined historical work about General William Tecumseh Sherman's vicious march through the American South, E.L. Doctorow's new novel portrays both the war itself—by far the most lethal conflict that the United States has ever fought—and Sherman's depredations as inexorable and grotesquely gratuitous.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. By Marina Lewycka. The Penguin Press; 304 pages; $24.95. Penguin/Viking; £12.99

The sluttish, rapacious blonde who is determined to marry the narrator's elderly widowed father brings a raw blast of reality from eastern Europe to a novel that has delighted audiences young and old. What you do with people you are supposed to like but don't trust or understand is the underlying conundrum of this comic feast in which the dialogue is entirely between educated people who lack a common language.

Incendiary. By Chris Cleave. Knopf; 256 pages; $22.95. Chatto & Windus; £10.99

A working-class woman writes to Osama bin Laden, venting her feelings about the bombing that killed her husband and her young son. By turns funny, naughty and sad, Chris Cleave's first novel, which was published on the day of the London tube bombings, manages two crucial literary achievements: a captivating heroine and a highly original voice.

The Third Woman. By Mark Burnell. HarperCollins; 371 pages; £12.99

This latest, fourth instalment in the turbulent career of Stephanie/Petra, the 21st-century female assassin with multiple identities, is Mark Burnell's best so far. If you like thrillers, this is as good as it gets.

Brandenburg. By Henry Porter. Orion; 448 pages; $24 and £10

Set in the last few paranoid weeks of the communist world when the Stasi, East Germany's brutish intelligence organisation, and its thousands of informers could no longer prevent the rebellion that brought down the Berlin wall, “Brandenburg” is a minutely reconstructed evocation of the cold war at its nastiest, and a salutary reminder of what it was all about.

The Year of Magical Thinking. By Joan Didion. Knopf; 227 pages; $23.95. Fourth Estate; £12.99

As writers, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne lived so closely together they often finished each other's sentences. After he died and their daughter lay on life support, Ms Didion began this literary portrait of a marriage and a life—in good times and bad—that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband, wife or child.

Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850. By Maya Jasanoff. Knopf; 404 pages; $27.95. Fourth Estate; £25

By tracing the collections of those who lived on the eastern frontiers of the British empire—and those who made them—Maya Jasanoff looks beneath the grand narratives of trade, power and resistance to uncover an intimate history of imperialism, changing our perceptions of the past.

Italia Romantica: English Romantics and Italian Freedom. By Roderick Cavaliero. I.B. Tauris; 246 pages; $35 and £20

A historian and former curator of the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, Roderick Cavaliero has written a highly entertaining account of English views of Italy in the era just as the British were launching themselves on the path to imperial greatness and the Italians had become the sorry remnants of a once-great race.

Shakespeare Goes to Paris: How the Bard Conquered France. By John Pemble. Hambledon & London; 256 pages; $39.95 and £19.99

So very Anglo-Saxon in his wit and wisdom, William Shakespeare was regarded as highly dangerous when he first became known to the French in the 1720s—an affront to taste and the values of classical drama. French hissing at its sharpest.

Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare's “Journey out of Essex”. By Iain Sinclair. Hamish Hamilton; 384 pages; £16.99

A psychogeographic exploration of the environmental damage which has been wrought on south-east England over the past two centuries. A magical addition to his three earlier volumes.

The Oxford History of Western Music (six-volume set). By Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press; 4,250 pages; $699 and £425

A magisterial survey of the traditions of western music, Richard Taruskin's narrative masterclass sets the details of music, as well as the chronological sweep of figures, works and musical ideas, within the larger context of cultural history and world affairs. This Oxford history is authoritative, opinionated and controversial, which is not surprising given that all six volumes are written by one man—and the most prominent and provocative musicologist of our time at that.

Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall. By Joseph Horowitz. Norton; 606 pages; $39.95 and £28

Despite hopeful beginnings in the 19th century, undue reverence for European masterworks and adulation for star performers have increasingly marginalised American classical music. Joseph Horowitz develops his thesis superbly well, through a fascinating gallery of characters and events.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. By James Shapiro. HarperCollins; 416 pages; $27.95. Faber and Faber; £16.99

By exploring the plays and the politics of a single year, 1599, James Shapiro throws an unusually searching light across Shakespeare's creative genius and makes him come truly alive.

The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance. By Philip Marsden. HarperCollins; 320 pages; £14.99

When Philip Marsden first went to Ethiopia in 1982, what he saw of its astonishing antiquity, its raw medieval Christianity, and its extremes of brutality and grace inspired his restless curiosity. In his account of his return 20 years later, he reaches deep into the heart of the nation by letting Ethiopians tell their own story.