Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Economist chimes in

The Economist, too, has posted its list of the year's best. A couple repeat appearances - but also a couple unexpected (not to say forgotten) treasures. Here's what they have to say about our books -- you can fine the complete feature here.

The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela, by Brian A. Nelson (Nation Books, 9781568584188) A scrupulous account of one of the most important, yet most misunderstood, events in recent South American history. It should be read by all those who believe that Hugo Chavez is a worthy champion of democracy and the oppressed. [And lest you think this is some right-wing revisionism, pray consider the publisher.]

The Arabs: A History, by Eugene Rogan (Basic, 9780465071005) Inspired by the work of Albert Hourani, this is a traditional history that focuses on the interplay of powers and the march of events to set the Arab story in a modern context. [That's two lists since this morning - I told you this was a remarkable book!]

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo (Basic, 9780465018277) Paul Dirac's equations predicted the existence of antimatter. His insights were so astonishing and so counter-intuitive that it is hard to imagine anyone else devising them. This excellent biographer demonstrates how he was probably the best British theoretical physicist since Isaac Newton.

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham (Basic, 9780465013623) A startling and persuasive analysis of the evolutionary role of cookery, arguing that you really are what you eat.

That's it for the Perseus books - but I also want to give a shout out to one of their fiction selections:

Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow and Farewell, by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions) Mr Marias has seized the spy thriller and turned it into a novel of ideas.

I've been praising Mr. Marias to the skies for years - I'm glad to see him getting his due. (If, by the way, you want to start with something smaller & more self-contained than the final volume of a series, allow me to recommend A Heart So White. This takes the family melodrama and turns it into a novel of ideas; it's so good it made me dizzy.)

Fun with the Financial Times list of the best of 2009

Yet another year-end roundup has crossed my path, and this one might be my favorite. After all, combing through lists can get a bit dull, no matter how magnificent the books sound; it breaks the monotony somewhat when you have to really pay attention -- as in the case of the Financial Times, where many of our books are listed under the UK publisher, and occasionally under the UK title. Since my job is to sell books here in the good ol' U S of A, I'll use our titles first:

America, Empire of Liberty, by David Reynolds (Basic, 9780465015009)

The Arabs: A History, by Eugene Rogan (Basic, 9780465071005)

Bring Me My Machine Gun: the Battle for the Soul of South Africa, from Mandela to Zuma (appearing as After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa), by Alec Russell (PublicAffairs, 9781586487386)

The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals, by Frank Partnoy (PublicAffairs, 9781586487430)

Keynes: The Return of the Master, by Robert Skidelsky (PublicAffairs, 9781586488277)

Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey--and Even Iraq--Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport (appearing simply, and delightfully, as Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained), by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (Nation, 9781568584256)

Tragically, still no recognition for Eduardo Galeano.

Making our mark in the history section

One thing I've enjoyed tremendously in the past few years is watching our history lists -- already strong to begin with -- develop so substantially. Some nice affirmation of that came recently, when the History Book Club put together its list of the top 100 history books of the year. Ten of their selections are Perseus books - and six are from Basic alone:

9. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness, by Harlow Ungar (Da Capo, 9780306818080)
14. Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It, by Susan Wels (Running Press, 9780762437634)
21. Marcus Aurelius: A Life, by Frank McLynn (Da Capo, 9780306818301)
28. America, Empire of Liberty, by David Reynolds (Basic, 9780465015009)
42. China: A History, by John Keay (Basic, 9780465015801)
45. Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea, by Desmond Seward (Da Capo, 9780306818073)
68. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson (Basic, 9780465013296)
69. Fatal Journey: The Final Journey of Henry Hudson, by Peter Mancall (Basic, 9780465005116)
76. Leningrad: State of Siege, by Michael Jones (Basic, 9780465011537)
96. The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe, by Andrew Wheatcroft (Basic, 9780465013746)

That list is not without its disappointments - I shake my head in wonder that neither Eduardo Galeano's Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (Nation, 9781568584232) nor Eugene Rogan's The Arabs: A History (Basic, 9780465071005) made the list; both are among the richest, most memorable history books I've encountered in a long while.

And I'm also of the mind that The White War should have been much closer to the top than #68 (picky, picky!) -- you may recall the enthusiasm with which I presented it (and even wrote about it in this forum). It vied with Mirrors for my favorite book on the Spring 2009 list. Everyone thought I was crazy for pushing it -- and I'll agree, unless your author's name is Hemingway Italy in World War One is not the easiest sell -- but this is a fantastic, enriching read. When a customer asks for a history book for that close relation who's already read all the big ones, I promise you this will satisfy.

But why quibble overmuch? It's lovely to see such recognition.