Happy New Year to The Daily Chrenk readers. If 2018 sucked for you, as it did for many people I know, keep marching on, onward and upward; if it was good for you, may 2019 be even better.
Another year, another year of TDC reading too many books instead of doing something more useful like blogging or having a life for that matter (and then blogging about it). As it has now become a tradition, at the beginning of a new year, I want to share with readers my three favourites of the year, the rest of the top twenty (which, in both cases, to confuse the matters, are not in any specific order), as well as the ten notable mentions, which didn’t quite crack the first twenty.
Please note that since I don’t buy new books, virtually everything I read is at least a few years old. Hence, not “The Best 20 Books of 2018” but simply the best books I got my hands on and read throughout the year.
1. “The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence” Martin Meredith (2005)
This book will make you angry, this book will make you want to weep, this book will make you want to strangle people, most of whom are now mercifully (for others’ sake, not their own) dead. Meredith shows how in the aftermath of decolonisation, newly independent African states – just about all of them – were in turn colonised from the inside by their own elites, and subsequently raped, destroyed, savaged and drowned in blood, sometimes for the sake of higher (though ultimately wring) ideals, often simply for the sake of satisfying the basest human instincts. The European rule might have been unjust and harsh (though its quality varied widely across the continent, in part depending on who the colonising power was) but with a few exceptions it had little on the indigenous orgy of violence, oppression, corruption and gross mismanagement, from which nightmare Africa has only recently started to finally wake up. Hallelujah and Godspeed!
2. “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” H W Brands (2000)
I don’t read a lot of what in the United States is a veritable publishing industry in itself – the biographies of the Founding Fathers – so I can’t compare this Pulitzer nominee (robbed in my opinion) to other classics of the genre, but Brands’ book is an astonishing portrait of an astonishing individual, not just “the first” but certainly among the most fascinating Americans who have ever lived, a true Renaissance man who also comes across as a genuinely decent human being and one of the very few historical personages I would actually like to have dinner with (whether he would like to have dinner with me is unlikely, though he would no doubt jump to the opportunity to hear how the American experiment has turned out). Eight hundred pages but never a dull moment with this never a dull man.
3. “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” Philippe Sands (2016)
It’s difficult to properly describe this book, part intellectual history and biography revolving around the one of the most turbulent parts of Europe during one of its most turbulent times, part detective story to trace Sands’ own family roots, intertwined at the margins as they were with those of the book’s two main protagonists. Sands, who is one of the most prominent contemporary international lawyers alights on the remarkable coincidence that the two lawyers who respectively invented the historically momentous concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity both came from the city and the environs of Lwow (now in Ukraine), as did Sands’ family – and, coincidentally, some of mine, albeit unlike the other three, all gentile. As difficult to describe it’s also difficult to praise “East West Street” highly enough for turning what might have been a very dry treatment of a very dry topic into a powerful and page-turning personal and historical odyssey.
And now the rest of the top 20:
4. “Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble” Anthony Beevor (2015)
Beevor continues to deliver, even if finding it difficult to replicate the success of “Stalingrad” and “Berlin”. The Bulge never really had a chance to turn the war around for Germany, but Beevor is excellent at capturing just how bitterly and desperately the Americans had fought virtually every step of the way to make sure it didn’t.
5. “The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat” Tim Spector (2015)
Spector is a geneticist who has conducted one of the largest studies into who we are and what we eat, and how we are what we eat. Forget all the “accepted science”, which constantly changes anyway, forget the conventional wisdom, forget the diets and the fads and just read this book. Hint: putting sugar aside (metaphorically and literally), pretty much every other food and food type is OK in moderation.
6. “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” Richard McGregor (2010)
McGregor is an Australian journalist who knows a thing or two – or a hundred – about modern China and so this book is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to understand how China actually works. Most people, deceived by the country’s booming and seemingly free market economy, have no idea how great a control the Party exercises over all aspects of life, including business. This is a necessary corrective.
7. “Napoleon the Great” Andrew Roberts (2014)
The Brits generally consider Napoleon to be Satan, so this grand and magisterial bio by Roberts is controversial in its generally positive portrait of the greatest Frenchman. Bonaparte was a genius and he was a pain the ass and both are probably related, but – for better or worse – individuals like him don’t walk the Earth often. Can’t wait to read Andrew’s new biography of Churchill, which if a number of reviews are to be trusted, might just be the best single-volume Churchill biography ever written.
8. “Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy” Douglas Smith (2012)
Communists have drowned Russia in the blood of her people, and with so many victims the Tsarist aristocracy are the least mourned (many of them felt in any case that a historical reckoning of some sort was due for their class), but nevertheless this fascinating social history of how Russia’s great families were virtually exterminated makes for a shocking and a very melancholy read.
9. “Tolstoy” A N Wilson (1988)
I never read any Tolstoy, I don’t read classics and therefore I’m not interested in literary biographies, but Wilson here has achieved a miracle, writing about the life of Russia’s greatest novelist and prophet is a way that had me absolutely spellbound for over 500 pages.
10. “The Frock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels” Tristram Hunt (2009)
Marx and Engels have to share the responsibility for providing the ideological justification for the misery inflicted on hundred of millions of people in the 20th century. It won’t exculpate him, but while Marx was a shit of a human being, Engels was not just more decent but also far more interesting, and – heresy alert – better and more prescient thinker.
11. “Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York” Stephen Birmingham (1967)
The biggest surprise enjoyment of the year. Some years ago I’ve read Birmingham’s book about the great wave of Jewish migration to New York in the late 19th and the early 20th century and quite liked it, but this prequel is a wonderful narrative social history of an earlier, smaller wave of German Jews who became Big Apple aristocrats – the Seligmans, the Solomons, the Liebs, the Kuhns, the Warburgs, the Lehmans. Engrossing.
12. “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East, 1776 to the Present” Michael B Oren (2007)
A must-read for anyone interested in American foreign policy and/or the Middle Eastern history. A great corrective for those living in the eternal present; Oren is particularly good at tracing the continuities in the interaction between the New World and the Really Old World. There is nothing new under the scorching Levantine sun.
13. “Warren Mundine in Black and White: Race, Politics and Changing Australia” Myunggai Warren Mundine AO (2017)
Political autobiographies usually bore me for their predictability and lack of candour, but Mundine’s is honest, interesting and ultimately uplifting, offering for me – a relatively recent arrival to Australia – a glimpse of the country and the time that I have never experienced myself. “Black and White”, however, is more than just a memoir; it’s also a mediation, a polemic and a manifesto. Indigenous people need – we all need in Australia – more people like Mundine.
14. “Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750” Odd Arne Westad (2012)
You won’t know and understand what drives China’s rulers today unless you understand China’s history, including its modern history of interaction with the outside world it had once safely assumed to be barbarian and of no significance. Marxism has been just one part of the puzzle, now increasingly least important.
15. “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” Colin Woodard (2011)
In the footsteps of classics like “Albion’s Seed”, Woodard retells the story of the United States, Canada and northern Mexico through the story of local cultures, which proved amazingly resilient and continue to still be with us today, influencing many facets of American life. It’s not just Yankees and Southern Rednecks; it’s far more complex and far more fascinating.
16. “Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89” Roderick Braithwaite (2011)
The first book in English looking at the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan through the Russian eyes. Braithwaite, the former British ambassador to Moscow, opens to us a whole new perspective on events we are familiar with.
17. “Warlord: The Fighting Life of Winston Churchill, from Soldier to Statesman” Carlo D’Este (2008)
Oh no, not another biography of Churchill; haven’t you already read half a dozen? That’s what I initially thought, but this 700+ pages mammoth of a book has quickly won me over, not least because D’Este, a military historian and biographer of note, is a very good writer and he engagingly tells the story of a infuriating genius who for all his other jobs throughout life remained a military man at heart, capable of both great insight (the father of the tank) as well as obsessive blindness (his lifelong fascination with the Balkans).
18. “The Americans: A Social History of the United States 1587-1914” J C Furnas (1969)
Hardback picked up for a $1 without any expectations, but it turned out to be a wonderful narrative history of which there is not a lot nowadays.
19. “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976” Frank Dikotter (2016)
The third volume in Dikotter’s must-read trilogy of carnage and suffering brought to post-war China by Mao; the previous volumes covering the victory in the civil war and the great famine. The Cultural Revolution was the last, albeit prolonged, bout of madness. It’s difficult not to read the stories of young indoctrinated fanatics running amok and destroying the enemies of the people and eradicating all traces of the past and not think of today’s universities – and be thankful the woke instincts are still being tampered by democracy and ridicule.
20. “The War in the West, A New History: Vol I, Germany Ascendant 1939-1941” James Holland (2015)
Haven’t there been enough books written about the Second World War? Clearly not, as they continue to sell, and not just to me. I like Holland’s approach, who in addition of waving the big strategic picture with the personal from-the-ground view of participants also focuses on an often underplayed aspect of war-making: the logistics: weapon production, weapon quality, fuel, food, transport.
“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” Erik Larson (2011) – FDR’s ambassador and his family witness the rise of Hitler. Great book spoiled only by the soft treatment of the daughter who subsequently became a communist agent.
“Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom” Bruce Bawer (2010) – Europe’s trendy multicultural surrender to intolerance makes one’s blood boil. If anything, things have gotten worse since then.
“Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century” David Reynolds (2007) – no startling new material but old tales retold well about big men deciding the fates of hundreds of millions over tense dinners.
“The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression” Stephane Courtois et al (1999) – again, nothing new for those familiar with the topic, but the book, originally published in France, nevertheless created a storm of controversy among the European leftists not appreciating being reminded of whom they cheered on throughout the Cold War.
“Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” Katherine S Newman (2004) – what happens and why – not just to the perpetrators and their victims but to their whole communities; a result of excellent field work at two locations.
“The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” Peter Frankopan (2015) – the history of the stretch of land between the Middle East and China, or rather the history of the world as seen through the prism of the said stretch of land.
“God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan” Jonathan D Spence (1996) – one of the most bizarre chapters of the Chinese history is this bloodiest of all civil wars, whipped up mid-19th century but an indigenous quasi-Christian sect.
“Models: Attract Women Through Honesty” Mark Manson (2010) – before he wrote “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” Manson wrote perhaps the best book about dating and attraction, sometimes counter-intuitive – or counter-narrative – but always sensible and brutally honest.
“Poor Economics: Barefoot Hedge Fund Managers, DIY Doctors and the Surprising Truth About Life on Less Than $1 a Day” Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2011) – one of those relatively short but very enlightening books backed by field research about the life in poverty as perceived by the actual poor people and not just the Western economists or all the sincere people trying to help them. It’s also somewhat deflating because once you finish it you realise that the problems are much more difficult to solve than either the right or the left would think.
“Tank Men: The Human Story of Tanks at War” Robert Kershaw (2008) – war from the perspective of men locked inside a claustrophobic tin can where they are likely to burn inside.
“Twelve Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos” Jordan B Peterson (2018) – the book everyone has been talking about. It didn’t quite bowl me over, but I can see the massive need for it (as was indeed revealed through its ongoing bestselling status) and see why so many people are responding to it – which is encouraging both in a sense that it is a good antidote but also because while Peterson is a very good and engaging writer “12 Rules” is not your average dumbed-down self-help book for the under-educated generation with a goldfish-like attention span.