In time for the holidays—a comprehensive selection of books highlighted in The Atlantic in 2007

CURRENT AFFAIRS

Power, Faith, and Fantasy
by Michael B. Oren (Norton)

In this survey of U.S.–Middle Eastern engagement, a leading Israeli historian argues that our relationship with the Middle East has always been inseparable from our sense of ourselves. “On balance,” he concludes, “Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.”

Poor People
by William T. Vollmann (Ecco)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men meets The Rough Guide, as the astonishingly prolific Vollmann (whose recent works include a 3,300-page treatise on the nature of human violence, and a National Book Award–winning novel) here meditates on poverty, asking poor people on six continents the direct and often complicated question, “Why are you poor?” Vollmann relates numerous haunting vignettes but no silver linings, and creates a remarkably detailed picture of the banality of human suffering, as well as of the limits of writerly observation in altering or ennobling it: “In appropriate contradiction of this book’s hopes and pretenses, poor people’s answers are frequently as impoverished as their lives.”

Planet India
by Mira Kamdar (Scribner)

America’s obsessive focus on China tends sometimes to obscure how amazingly fast India is transforming itself into an economic superpower. This briskly written, vivid account shows how that subcontinental country’s films, technology, and service industries have made India an ever-growing presence on the American scene. Time to recognize yet another awakening giant snapping at our heels.

HISTORY

Dancing in the Streets
by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan)

The author of Nickel and Dimed probes the curious history of “collective joy,” portraying the advance of Western civilization as a determined campaign to purge ecstasy and fellow feeling from daily life. Although Ehrenreich’s scope is vast, and the more visceral type of communitarianism she calls for is appealing, her book lacks the passionate urgency of its ostensible subject and remains somewhat inert.

The Averaged American
by Sarah E. Igo (Harvard)

In what could be a companion volume of sorts to Ehrenreich’s book, a scholar meditates on the rise of public-opinion polling in the U.S. and the peculiar brand of self-knowledge-at-a-distance for which we have Gallup and Kinsey to thank. Igo notes that although such surveys have become more scientific, they remain inescapably reductive, so that Americans have learned “what their metaphorical, but not their actual, neighbors were thinking and doing.”

Where We Lived
by Jack Larkin (Taunton)

A fascinating and beautifully photographed survey of American homes built between 1775 and 1840 reveals an astonishing variety of dwellings as well as certain common bonds: cramped spaces, persistent smells, no privacy to speak of.

Murder City
by Michael Lesy (Norton)

The author of Wisconsin Death Trip—an American Gothic classic documenting creepy fin-de-siécle goings-on in a small midwestern town—turns to the Chicago clip morgue, reconstructing a series of particularly sordid Windy City murders from their descriptions in 1920s newspapers. The accompanying photos of formally attired but apparently savage Jazz Age Chicagoans are as chilling as the deadpan tones in which Lesy renders their tales, lending his book the archaic strangeness of myth.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
by Leonard L. Richards (Knopf)

An engrossing chronicle of the political intrigues that engulfed California in the 1850s, when pro-Southern legislators there angled to turn the state’s newfound wealth to the benefit of the slave economy.

Three New Deals
by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (Metropolitan)

A German scholar draws dispassionate parallels between Nazism, Italian Fascism, and New Deal liberalism in tracking varied responses to the social and economic trials of the 1930s. Schivelbusch is scrupulous about comparing without equating, and he has an interesting answer to the question of why, faced with similar hardships and possessed of an apparently similar hunger for public-works projects and demagoguery, the United States did not join Italy and Germany in succumbing to the fascist temptation: Since a creed of classlessness—a necessary precondition for fascism—had long been a cornerstone of American identity, the U.S. was inoculated against the larger threat.

Shameful Flight
by Stanley Wolpert (Oxford)

Even the most die-hard defender of British rule of the subcontinent can’t claim that the imperial power’s final act was its finest hour. Churchill called it “shameful flight,” and this disturbing book makes clear just what a hash Britons made of quitting India and of their concomitant partition of Punjab and Bengal, which resulted in the mutual slaughter of at least a million Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. While rightly assigning most of the blame to the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, Wolpert identifies many culprits before him, in Whitehall and the Raj, who contributed to the disaster.

Household Gods
by Deborah Cohen (Yale)

What is it about the British and their home fixtures and furnishings? Perhaps classical education made the Roman household gods—lares and penates— a byword among Britain’s upper crust. In any case, all that stuff crowded into Victorian rooms, along with that overstuffed furniture, speaks volumes about the stuffiness of 19th-century British society. This diverting, tellingly illustrated book takes us through the dim heart of Victorian clutter and into the fresh air of the modern design that swept it away.

Hitler’s Beneficiaries
by Götz Aly (Metropolitan Books)

The Wages of Destruction
by Adam Tooze (Viking)

Hitler’s Beneficiaries crisply shows how the Nazi regime starved and depleted its subject nations, thereby raising Germans’ standard of living and— disturbingly—gaining their often- enthusiastic support. The Wages of Destruction is a vast tome of economic history, a category seldom recommended to the general reader. But this exhaustively researched study cogently argues that the Nazis’ scheme for world domination was at least as grounded in economics as in military might, and it locates, at the very heart of his ambitions, Hitler’s determination that Germany displace the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.

Saltwater Slavery
by Stephanie E. Smallwood (Harvard)

This deeply researched, tightly focused, and skillfully evocative look at the Atlantic slave trade, 1675–1725, details the experience of crossing the ocean— an ordeal fatal to many of the slaves who were forced to undertake it.

Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940
by Margaret Gaskin (Harcourt)

The Luftwaffe launched bigger air raids during the Blitz, but none captured the public imagination, then and afterward, like the incendiary attack of the Sunday night after Christmas 1940—an event memorialized in the iconic image of St. Paul’s Cathedral silhouetted against the burning city. Gaskin, a London journalist, deftly evokes the desperation as water pumps run dry, and the horror as millions of books burn on Paternoster Row while one beautiful Wren church after another is destroyed.

Buda’s Wagon
by Mike Davis (Verso)

Arguing that “no other weapon in the history of warfare has proven to be such a promiscuous equalizer of combat between elephants and fleas,” Davis, a prolific leftist historian, traces the evolution of the car bomb from the explosives-laden horse wagon that the anarchist Mario Buda detonated on Wall Street in 1920 to the “improvised explosive devices” of today’s Iraq. Despite characteristically overheated prose, Davis creates a fascinating genealogy that raises chilling questions about the future of terrorism.

West from Appomattox
by Heather Cox Richardson (Yale)

This well-written and perceptive history considers Reconstruction as a national—rather than strictly Southern—phenomenon that united the North, South, and West, and created the creed of middle-class individualism that would define the 20th century. Richardson skillfully details some glaring contradictions—that the Wild West was settled only with significant government intervention, for example, and that the era’s new egalitarianism excluded large groups of people deemed insufficiently white, male, or “hardworking”—and shows the sway this doctrine still holds today.

Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World
by Margaret MacMillan (Random House)

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power
by Robert Dallek (HarperCollins)

Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive
by Stephen P. Randolph (Harvard)

Henry Kissinger and the American Century
by Jeremi Suri (Harvard)

In diplomacy, ideas must fight a ­grinding battle with circumstance. Very few statesmen possess what the first President Bush called “the vision thing,” and fewer still have been able to transcend the push and pull of events to force history to conform to that vision. In fact, only three American secretaries of state—Adams, Acheson, and Kissinger—have so succeeded.

While none of these books is definitive, together they form an impressive study of the relationship between ideas and power. Nixon was despised by most intellectuals (and reciprocated their disdain), yet as these works reveal, he and Kissinger had a similar worldview and a curious intellectual symbiosis, quite apart from their practical political partnership.

Despite its title, MacMillan’s volume shows Kissinger not merely as an éminence grise but as the essential player in much of the era’s drama. By far the most stylish and readable of these books, it’s also surprisingly pithy in its revelations—for example, Kissinger worried that the Chinese might spin the 1972 Sino-American Shanghai Communiqué “as a major American defeat.”

In Dallek’s detailed study of Kissinger and Nixon’s relationship, Kissinger dominates by his intellect, range, subtlety, and, of course, by his ability to flatter, manipulate, and forcefully yet pragmatically advocate a principle.

Randolph’s book is the driest of these works; it’s also the most specific and focused. In the spring of 1972, with the election looming, Kissinger and Nixon apparently concluded that the only way to break the logjam in the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese was to unleash the Linebacker bombing campaign. Drawing on extensive research and newly declassified materials, Randolph tells the story of how the White House overrode the objections of the Pentagon brass and the field command in Vietnam—which resulted in a display of shock-and-awe that was as impressive in the realm of realpolitik as it was on the battlefield.

Though relatively—refreshingly— brief, Suri’s book makes in some ways the largest claims for its subject’s enduring effect on American foreign policy. Probing thoughtfully into Kissinger’s background and character, Suri sees the secretary as the Cold War’s ultimate statesman. Eschewing polemics—indeed, none of these books do much ax grinding—this work explores what shaped and nurtured the phenomenon that was Henry Kissinger.

The Hellenistic Age: A Short History
by Peter Green (Modern Library)

Green draws upon a lifetime of scholarship to brilliantly sum up the 300-year Hellenistic age in less than 150 pages. Happily, this book’s brevity—admirable in itself, and in its concision, elegance, and authority—isn’t achieved at the expense of subtlety and complexity. Green makes good his promise to “study the three centuries of the Hellenistic age in a continuous ongoing diachronic narrative embracing the entire scene.”

The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961–1989
by Frederick Taylor (HarperCollins)
For something that lasted only slightly more than a quarter century, the Berlin Wall cast a very long shadow. Built almost overnight by desperate Soviet authorities determined to keep East Berlin’s population from hemorrhaging to the free sectors of the city, the Wall did its job with brutal, stifling effect. This vivid account of the Wall and all that it meant reminds us that symbolism can be double-edged, as a potent emblem of isolation and repression became, in its destruction, an even more powerful totem of freedom.

Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia
by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Harvard)
Two years after their brilliant and vivid Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–45, the Cambridge historians Bayly and Harper produce a sequel that examines Britain’s conflicts in Southeast Asia in the four years after the Second World War. While adroitly analyzing Britain’s hard-fought battle against insurrectionary forces in Malaya, the authors explore lesser-known episodes: Bengalese and Burmese skirmishes seldom highlighted in accounts of the Raj’s end, and the British interregnums between the ends of the Japanese occupations of Indonesia and Vietnam and the restorations of the respective former colonial administrations.

Troublesome Young Men
by Lynne Olson (FSG)

That arch-determinist Tolstoy would doubtless have said that England in 1940 so desperately needed a savior that someone like Winston Churchill simply had to arise and rescue it from disaster. According to this riveting book, which mixes personal drama and gossip with high politics, it took a lot of scheming by a fascinating assortment of maverick and established politicians to bring the right man to 10 Downing Street at the right time. Olson tells her story with verve, never letting the reader forget what was really at risk—and what might have happened if these particular troublemakers hadn’t been so willing to stir the political pot.

The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861
by William W. Freehling (Oxford)

The second part of Freehling’s monumental study of the Civil War’s causes and the South’s road to secession skillfully outlines the political fissures within pre–Civil War Dixie. While the Deep South argued consistently against any sort of compromise, states farther north such as North Carolina and Virginia—less dependent on the slave economy—held out hope, even after Lincoln’s election, for accommodation with the Union. Occasional cringe-inducing efforts at an aphoristic, “literary” style notwithstanding, this sure-to-be- lasting work—studded with pen portraits and consistently astute in its appraisal of the subtle cultural and geographic variations in the region—adds crucial layers to scholarship on the origins of America’s bloodiest conflict.

Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia
by Lesley Chamberlain (St. Martin’s)

In 1919, while Lenin was engaged in the wholesale slaughter of the Russian grand dukes, Maxim Gorky pleaded with the Soviet leader to spare the life of one, Nicholas Mikhailovich, whose work as a historian he admired—to which Lenin supposedly replied, “The revolution has no need for historians.” This latest book from Chamberlain, that superb chronicler of all things Russian, demonstrates the extent of Lenin’s determination to rid his newly created state of its intellectual crème de la crème, whom he sent packing on two ships in the autumn of 1922. As always, Chamberlain is that rare cicerone for the reader, displaying learning, empathy, and deep understanding on every page.

That Neutral Island
by Clair Wills (Harvard)

Ireland’s determined neutrality in the Second World War was such a sore point for Britain that Churchill couldn’t restrain himself—even in 1945, in the hour of triumphant victory—from lashing out at that nation for the lives it had cost. Perhaps Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera’s recent condolence visit to the German diplomatic representative in Dublin on Hitler’s death had enraged him anew. But as Wills shows in her penetrating account of why and how Ireland stayed neutral while the global conflict literally washed up on its shores, more than passionate nationalist and anti-British feelings were at work in that policy. This far-ranging book not only explores the strategic and political reasoning behind Irish neutrality, which had almost unanimous domestic support, but draws on such resident chroniclers as Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, and John Betjeman to paint a detailed picture of how life was lived on this island of light surrounded by a blacked-out world.

My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind
by Silvana Paternostro (Henry Holt)

A nation’s narrative rendered through a personal prism, this evocative work succeeds where many similar efforts fail. The secret? Paternostro herself, a deservedly celebrated journalist, able to deftly interweave past and present and write with a compassion that resists pathos. A child of relative privilege, she left a violently changing Colombia for the States at age 15; decades later she returned as a reporter, and what follows is revelatory. Wrenching interviews with today’s Colombians, unflinching descriptions of the horrors wrought by drug cartels and paramilitary groups, and unusual details keenly conveyed amount to a moving, highly memorable take on how a country lost its moorings.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford)

In this latest installment of the Oxford History of the United States, Howe has produced a comprehensive, richly detailed, and elegantly written account of the republic between the War of 1812 and the American victory in Mexico a generation later. This was a period of enormous change, not only in politics but in religion, economics, transportation, communication, social and intellectual culture, the very foundations of common life. And Howe covers it all—the Jacksonian and market “revolutions,” the rise of sectional tensions, westward expansion, the Transcendentalists, revivalism— through astute pen portraits, authoritative analysis, and gripping narrative. The Oxford series has been uneven, but this volume is a masterpiece.

The Whisperers
by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan)

Figes—author of the dazzling books A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 and Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia—presents a tapestry of the Stalinist era woven from the personal experiences and words of Soviet citizens, both betrayers and betrayed. As in his earlier works, the research is extensive and subtle, much of it here drawn from the outpouring of oral history in the 1990s, which he uses to elucidate the texture of daily life and the ways humanity was perverted by a regime of fear.

Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil
by Wallace Stegner (Selwa)

It might be a stretch to call this lost work—finished in 1956, published in 1971 (though only in Lebanon), promptly forgotten, and now reissued—a “classic,” but “prescient” would be something like criminal understatement. Stegner, best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose, went to Saudi Arabia in 1955 to write a history of Aramco’s early years. What resulted was a deeply reported, exquisitely sensitive account of the people who founded the company. More important to today’s reader, it describes how oil was discovered in the region, why Ibn Saud allowed Western drilling in his kingdom, and how those two fateful facts have bound Saudis and Americans—politically, culturally, and economically—ever since.