Confession: I read a lot. Always did, since I was 5. Perhaps too much. Which is why, to avoid bankruptcy, I don’t buy new books. My readings range widely and wildly based on what falls into my hands second-hand, and therefore could be a year or two old or a few decades’ old classic by the time I get to it. So below, as per my tradition previously exercised on Facebook, the selection of the best twenty books I’ve read IN 2016 – but not the best books OF 2016. The first three are my top three favourites; the following 17 are in no particular order of preference.
“Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914” Max Hastings
Hastings is a great popular (as an ex-journo he can actually write) military historian, mostly of the Second World War, but here he takes on the first few months of its predecessor, when it was still a war of manoeuvre before settling into a trench stalemate (at least in the West; on the Eastern Front it remained free flowing for the duration). These are the forgotten battles of the war, but not less bloody than what came after. A magnificent narrative.
“The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, from the Revolution to the First World War” Graham Robb
This was such a surprise; who would have thought that a book about how the France we know today was invented and created quite recently (in historical terms) could be so fascinating. Just as New York is not really the United States, Paris is not really France, though it had made the country. Anyone who’s interested in European history, or the French history, or loves traveling through France should read it. It’s like discovering a whole new country you never knew, which I guess it actually is.
“A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924” Orlando Figes
As I wrote about it, a “masterpiece”. It’s a huge book and so heavy you can easily kill a commie with it, but there’s not a dull moment. Especially poignant and deserving to be read or re-read as this year we remember (because there is nothing to commemorate) the anniversary of the 1917 “revolution” or rather a Bolshevik coup d’etat, one of the most disastrous events in the human history. The story, as told by Figes, is properly a tragedy not just because of the straight-forward arithmetic of lives lost, damaged and destroyed, but because at so many different points in it things might have gone differently – and better, for Russia and the world. I’ve read plenty of books about the Revolution, but I can’t really see a better history written before or after Figes, though there are some excellent shorter ones if you don’t have the time and patience.
“Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” Barbara Ehrenreich
Keep your mind open; read what the other side thinks. You can find little gems and points of agreement everywhere if you only look. The lives of America’s working poor are depressing alright. To the extent many of these people vote at all and are not completely disillusioned, disinterested and disengaged, I suspect that a lot of them would have voted for Trump last year.
“Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” Charles Murray
Published five years ago, it’s probably the best book you can read that explains what has been happening in the United States in 2016. The growth of the new lower class, the disconnect of the top 5%… “Things come apart…”
“Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa” Jason K Stearns
I was never much interested in Africa, but this book was utterly fascinating – and was a close runner-up to the top three. The biggest conflict and humanitarian disaster since the end of the Second World War but do you even realise it happened? Stearns has met and interviewed everyone who was anyone in the conflict. Often it reads like fiction but it’s all too real.
“Estates: An Intimate History” Lynsey Hanley
A somewhat warm but not unrealistic look at public housing from one of its tenants. Many of my friends would argue that it’s not the business of a government to provide accommodation; there are certainly some important lessons here on how not to do it.
“Potemkin: Prince of Princes” Simon Sebag Montefiore
The bio of one of the most fascinating personalities of the 18th century by one of my favourite historians of all things Russian. Can’t wait to read his “Romanovs”.
“Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II” Hal G P Colebatch
No book last year made me angrier than this one. If I were an Australian or an American soldier during the war I would have lined up the union members against the wall and mowed them down. That this mass treason went unpunished (and often praised in the Labor circles) is a travesty of justice and historical memory.
“Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” James L Swanson
You know how it all ends but still a great romp. Lincoln’s assassination is well known historical event; the whole story and its aftermath far less so. Democrat-leaning actors have always been a bane of existence.
“Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers” Anabel Hernández
You read and you weep how the drug business has turned Mexico is into a quasi-failed narcostate. I fear there is no law enforcement or military solution to this problem. As long as tens of billions of dollars can be made, there will be a limitless supply of poor men wanting to have a cut of the action.
“Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700” Diarmaid McCulloch
So, another round anniversary – 500 years, in fact – is coming up this year. All is forgiven, Luther. Great and enlightening narrative to see what it was all about.
“Capital in the 21st Century” Thomas Piketty
A quite flawed book, including in its methodology, yet nevertheless quite mesmerising. Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum/circle/horseshoe/graph, economic inequality is or is not an important issue. And whether or not it objectively is, in politics perception is reality. If there is one thing that 2016 should have taught us it’s that very significant sections of our societies think themselves the losers of free market and globalisation.
“Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” Michael Lewis
Lewis is a modern muckraker against the world of high finance. You read any of his books (and you should) and you shake your head at the absurdity of a handful of people making a killing – and killing economies if things go belly up as they did in 2008 – off financial products not even they understand. It’s an Alice in the Wonderland stuff, with trillions of dollars at stake.
“The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” Lucy Hughes-Hallett
I confess I bought the book because it was a signed copy, but it proved to be surprisingly interesting even for someone like me who’s not interested in the late 19th/early 20th century Italian literary scene. You need to read it if you want to understand the forces that eventually led to fascism; particularly since a century on everything old is new again. Beautifully and engagingly written; if only more biographies were like that more past lives would be alive to us today.
“In Europe: Travels Through The Twentieth Century” Geert Mak
As Europe was approaching the end of the century, a popular Dutch journalist convinced a newspaper to let him travel all around the continent visiting localities that played large role in key events of the past hundred years. Popular history and travelogue at its best. I read it on the flight to Europe to get back into the Euro-groove.
“The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War” Halik Kochanski
I bought this book at the gift shop of the Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek near Arnhem during my pilgrimage to see where my grandfather landed, fought, was wounded and was taken prisoner at the “bridge too far”. Pretty self-explanatory; you all know some bits and pieces but not many of you would know the full horrible history, even I didn’t.
“The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century” Peter Watson
Thanks to Hitler, Nazism and war is the first thing that comes to mind when we think about German history. As Watson shows, the German artistic, cultural and scientific contribution to our civilisation is quite breath-taking. In many ways, the Teutons made the modern world.
“Notes from a Small Island” Bill Bryson
I’ve read Bryson’s more recent non-travel non-fiction, but this was my first dip into what originally made him famous and widely read. Somewhat repetitive but quite endearing travelogue of mostly small-town Great Britain.
“Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” Thomas E. Ricks
I’m sure everyone will point out to what they think is a better book about Iraq, and I’m not claiming this was is the definite history by any stretch of imagination and certainly not an objective and impartial one. But reading it now, ten years on, I was intrigued to see how well a few individuals like Petraeus and Mattis came off, which I guess makes it continually relevant.