Books of the year 2007 (The Economist)

Pick of the bunch (Dec 6th 2007)
From The Economist print edition

History, politics, music, business, biography, memoir, letters and fiction. There is something for everyone in this round-up of the year's best books


The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany's Most Illustrious and Infamous Family
By Jonathan Carr. Grove Atlantic; 432 pages; $27.50. Faber and Faber; £20
The all-consuming story of the Wagners, their friends, their rivalries and the marvellous music they made while becoming the Sopranos of the opera world.
The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family
God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain
By Rosemary Hill. Allen Lane; 416 pages; £30
The tragic life of the Victorian architect who built glorious cathedrals and filled Britain with buildings that look like medieval monasteries.
Gods Architect: Pugin And The Building Of Romantic Britain
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
By Linda Lear. St Martin's Press; 592 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25
A spunky, humorous woman who fought conventional Victorian family expectations to lead an independent life as an artist, businesswoman and conservationist.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
Edith Wharton
By Hermione Lee. Knopf; 880 pages; $35. Chatto & Windus; £25
Money, status, marriage and divorce: all became grist to the mill of the turn-of-the-century American writer whom Henry James called “the great generalissima”.
Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice
By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press; 240 pages; $25 and £16.99
How two elderly Jewish lesbians—Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—survived the Nazis, by the author of “The Journalist and the Murderer”, “Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession”, and “Inside the Freud Archives”

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer
By Tim Jeal. Yale University Press; 608 pages; $38. Faber and Faber; £25
The best and most readable biography of Henry Morton Stanley draws on a wealth of new material. Tim Jeal is also the biographer of Lord Baden Powell, who started the Boy Scouts, and David Livingstone, the most famous Victorian explorer.

The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America
By Allan M. Brandt. Basic Books; 704 pages; $36
As recently as the late 1990s cigarettes killed more Americans than AIDS, car accidents, alcohol, murder, suicide, illegal drugs and fire. Nevertheless, the industry survived. This is the first full and convincing account of how it did so.
God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World
By Walter Russell Mead. Knopf; 464 pages; $27.95. Atlantic Books; £25
The birth, rise, triumph, defence and continuing growth of Anglo-American power—or how the much-loathed Anglo-Saxons have (mostly) kept on winning.
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
By Tim Weiner. Doubleday; 704 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £25
A survey of the agency's failures since its founding in 1947, which concludes that the world's most powerful country has yet to develop a first-rate spy service.
1967: Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East
By Tom Segev. Metropolitan Books; 688 pages; $35. Little, Brown; £25
A riveting narrative, based on letters, diaries and interviews, as well as Israel's rich official archives, that analyses the diplomatic and military background to the six-day war and offers a shrewd insight into the nation's psyche.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
By Judith Herrin. Allen Lane; 416 pages; £20. To be published in America by Princeton University Press in January
A new study which argues that the Byzantines were not just makers of bewitching golden art, but also ran a vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan empire whose legacy is still discernible all over south-east Europe and the Levant.

Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815
By Charles Esdaile. Allen Lane; 621 pages; £30
Charles Esdaile focuses on what made European nations fight each other—for so long and with such devastating results. A grand and panoramic study that reassesses a tumultuous era, looking far beyond the battles and Napoleon's insatiable greed for military glory.
The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I
By John Adamson. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 576 pages; £25
A radical new look at the coming of the English civil war, itself one of the most fought-over episodes in English history and historiography.

The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789-1837
By Ben Wilson. Penguin; 464 pages; $27.95. Published in Britain as “Decency and Disorder”; Faber and Faber; £20
One of Britain's most promising young historians examines how the liberality of the 18th century was transformed into the moralism of the Victorian age.

The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England
By Adrian Tinniswood. Riverhead Books; 592 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £25
Meet the family that was involved in cheesemaking, sword-buying and scandal-mongering—as well as the English civil war, the Great Fire of London and the coronation of William and Mary.
Scotland: The Autobiography—2,000 Years of Scottish History by Those Who Saw it Happen
By Rosemary Goring. Viking; 512 pages; £25. To be published in America by Overlook in July
From the battlefield to the sports field: the tumultuous story of Scotland as told by those who witnessed it first hand. A surprising collection.
Politics and current affairs
Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes. Knopf; 400 pages; $28.95. To be published in Britain by Simon & Schuster in February
Despite the uncertainty of whether Iran is developing atomic weapons, the nuclear club has expanded by at least half since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By carefully assembling all the available evidence on the current state of the arms race, Richard Rhodes presents a terrifying overview of the global potential for killing.
The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

By William Langewiesche. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 192 pages; $22. Allen Lane; £20
A former professional pilot, turned investigative reporter, William Langewiesche takes the low road from Washington, DC, to Pakistan, Russia, Georgia and Turkey to try to discover just how hard or easy it is to get hold of atomic weapons. A detailed companion to Richard Rhodes's big-picture approach.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
By Jeffrey Toobin. Doubleday; 384 pages; $27.95
Only an outsider such as Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer at the New Yorker, could have written such an engaging, erudite, candid and insightful analysis of the work done by the usually highly secretive justices of America's Supreme Court.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

How Capitalism Was Built: The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia
By Anders Aslund. Cambridge University Press; 384 pages; $25.99 and £15.99
A rich and detailed chronicle of the unsteady transition from central planning to market economies, with a particularly good chapter on the rise of the Russian oligarchs and how they differ from the 19th-century American robber barons.
How Capitalism Was Built: The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia

How Capitalism Was Built: The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia

India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

By Ramachandra Guha. Ecco; 912 pages; $34.95. Macmillan; £25
Using a patient approach, gentle criticism and eclectic examples to draw evidence that supports his argument, Ramachandra Guha, a historian and biographer, offers a clear and detailed narrative explaining how the miracle that is modern India emerged from the colonial chrysalis.
The Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay
By Clive Stafford Smith. Nation Books; 336 pages; $25.95. Published in Britain as “Bad Men: Guantánamo Bay and the Secret Prisons”; Orion; £16.99
The best analysis so far of the erosion of civil liberties in America and Britain and the consequences for individuals and society, by the lawyer who has represented more prisoners in Guantánamo than anyone else.
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
By Francisco Goldman. Grove Atlantic; 416 pages; $25. To be published in Britain by Atlantic Books in February
In his first book of non-fiction, Francisco Goldman, a novelist whose mother is Guatemalan, examines a war crime and offers a long-overdue indictment of the criminals who, sanctioned by the regime, contributed to a generation of atrocities.
Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System
By Roberto Saviano. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 301 pages; $25. To be published in Britain by Macmillan in January
A national bestseller in Italy that traces the decline of Naples as construction, fashion, drugs and the disposal of toxic waste all fell under the systematic control of organised crime.
Through the Darkness: A Life in Zimbabwe. By Judith Garfield Todd. Struik; 472 pages; $28 and £14.99
A harrowing tale of courage and betrayal by a white heroine of the liberation struggle against Ian Smith who has been punished (and stripped of her citizenship) with extraordinary vengefulness by Robert Mugabe for speaking out about the regime's abuses of power.
Economics and business

The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co—A Tale of Unrestrained Ambition, Billion-Dollar Fortunes, Byzantine Power Struggles, and Hidden Scandal
By William D. Cohan. Doubleday; 742 pages; $29.95
How an investment bank concentrated on providing corporate advice to the rich and powerful—a business model that relied not on its balance sheet but on the brains and wiles of the men toiling away in its famously ratty offices. William Cohan used to work at Lazard's himself.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Random House; 400 pages; $26.95. Allen Lane; £20
A Wall Street trader turned philosopher on the power of the unexpected.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It
By Paul Collier. Oxford University Press; 224 pages; $28 and £16.99
Crammed with statistical nuggets and common sense, this book, by an economics professor at Oxford University, should be compulsory reading for anyone embroiled in the thankless business of trying to pull people out of the pit of poverty.
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Grove Art)

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Grove Art)

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World
By Alan Greenspan. Penguin Press; 531 pages; $35 and £25
A memoir-cum-essay by the famously opaque former chairman of the Federal Reserve that provides few surprises, but is an unexpectedly enjoyable read.
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
By Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. Portfolio; 320 pages; $25.95. Atlantic Books; £16.99
A believers' guide to how the emergence of community on the internet is fundamentally changing business.

From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession
By Rakesh Khurana. Princeton University Press; 542 pages; $35 and £19
A Harvard Business School professor tells the fascinating tale of how management has lost its way.

The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune
By Conor O'Clery. PublicAffairs; 352 pages; $26.95 and £15.99
A rollicking story of how, by stealth, an Irish-American obsessed by secrecy built a business empire and revolutionised philanthropy.

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits
By Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. Jossey-Bass; 336 pages; $29.95 and £15.99
As the importance of non-profit organisations grows, so does the need for them to be well managed and effective. Cleverly chosen examples show how the best achieve their impact.

Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart
By Ian Ayres. Bantam; 272 pages; $25. John Murray; £16.99
A lively and clear analysis of how the accumulation of large bodies of data is changing the way that businesses (and people) make decisions.
Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart

Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart

Fiction and memoirs
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon. HarperCollins; 432 pages; $26.95. Fourth Estate; £17.99
The state of Israel never existed in Michael Chabon's sixth novel. Instead the Jewish homeland is a 60-year lease on a dodgy bit of Alaska. Life among the frozen Chosen is the setting for a gripping and thought-provoking whodunnit featuring the world's last Jewish settlement. Full of dark humour and Yiddish jokes, it tips its cap to Raymond Chandler and 1940s film noir. The year's funniest novel.
By Alexis Wright. Giramondo Press; 519 pages; A$29.95. To be published in Britain by Constable & Robinson in March
A sweeping novel that will be published in Britain next year (though not in America) about the unhappy relations between the white majority and indigenous aboriginals, by a notable Australian narrator. A voice to remember.
On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese; 208 pages; $22. Jonathan Cape; £12.99
This coolly written, bestselling account of the lasting effects of a marriage night in the 1950s that turned disastrously wrong has struck a chord, reminding perhaps too many readers of their first sexual experience. The author of “Atonement” has done it again.

The Scandal of the Season
By Sophie Gee. Scribner; 352 pages; $25. Chatto & Windus; £12.99
A young Australian professor of English at Princeton University imagines Alexander Pope, a country poet and a hunchback, coming to London in 1711 to observe the illicit love affair between Arabella Fermor and Robert, Lord Petre. Sophie Gee's handsome and wilful heroes plunge headlong into a whirl of hedonism and heady politics in a rollicking imagined prequel to Pope's most famous poem, “The Rape of the Lock”. A novel of lust and luck.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
By J.K. Rowling. Scholastic; 784 pages; $34.99. Bloomsbury; £17.99
Books written as part of a series that start well almost invariably fall off in quality. Not so the seventh and last HP, the end of the decade's most successful morality tale, which shows J.K. Rowling at the height of her magical imaginative powers.
The Septembers of Shiraz
By Dalia Sofer. HarperCollins; 352 pages; $24.95. Picador; £14.99
A successful jeweller and gem merchant, patronised by the Tehran aristocracy and the wife of the shah, is arrested by two armed Revolutionary Guards. His wife searches frantically for him, while in prison he asks himself how he can survive. A powerful depiction of a prosperous Jewish family in Iran shortly after the revolution.
Mr Pip
By Lloyd Jones. Dial Press; 272 pages; $20. John Murray; £12.99
A young girl finds escape through the pages of Charles Dickens's “Great Expectations”, thanks to the efforts of a new teacher who is drafted into the local village school during the 1990 blockade of the Melanesian island of Bougainville. The cadences of Pacific vernacular make spare, moving prose.
Mister Pip
Other Country
By Stephen Scourfield. Allen & Unwin; 228 pages; A$29.95
Set in the Australian Outback and written in a taut poetic style perfectly suited to the hardened characters who inhabit it, “Other Country” is unusual for the language of its landscape. Perfect for those who liked Cormac McCarthy's “All the Pretty Horses”, this novel richly deserves to be published in Britain and America.
The Ghost
By Robert Harris. Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $26. Hutchinson; £18.99
A racy political thriller that has earned its high sales in Britain, “The Ghost” is the tangled story of a former British prime minister, a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, and his wife and political adviser. Brilliantly persuasive, right up to the last page of its astonishing and unpredictable conclusion.
The Uncommon Reader
By Alan Bennett. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 128 pages; $15. Faber & Faber/Profile Books; £10.99
Witty and urbane, physically tiny and charming, this account of Queen Elizabeth II discovering the work of J.R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton-Burnett and other writers is a Swiftian tirade against stupidity and philistinism, and a passionate argument for the civilising power of art. A perfect stocking filler. 
The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

Culture and digressions

Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey
By James Attlee. University of Chicago Press; 256 pages; $22.50 and £12
James Attlee's scholarly, reflective and sympathetic journey up Oxford's unloved and unlovable Cowley Road is one of the best travel books written about Britain's oldest university city.

The Tiger that Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers
By Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot. Profile Books; 185 pages; £12.99
A reliable guide to a treacherous subject; a book that gives its readers the mental ammunition to make sense of official statistical claims. That this book manages to make them laugh at the same time is a rare and welcome feat.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
By Alex Ross. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 623 pages; $30. To be published in Britain in March by Fourth Estate
Alex Ross's odyssey through the 20th century shows amongst other things how music was used by the Nazis in the 1930s and by the Americans during the cold war.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Letters of Ted Hughes
Edited by Christopher Reid. Faber and Faber; 756 pages; £30
The roaring, intemperate missives of one of England's great primitives.
Letters of Ted Hughes
The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon: A Record of the Largest Atlantic Salmon Ever Caught.
By Fred Buller. Constable & Robinson; 400 pages; £50
Years in the making, this is a fisherman's treasury, the definitive collection of every recorded landing of a giant Atlantic salmon and the stories of their capture whether on the fly or by other means.