It takes a daring biographer to turn her sharp eye on her own life as Antonia Fraser does so movingly and beautifully in her memoir Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter. It's a compelling diary of a passionate love affair, marriage, and 40-year conversation of two soul mates in the milieu of London's chattering classes.
Harvard superstar professor Niall Ferguson wrote a superb book, High Financier, that I hope every Wall Street banker is receiving along with their fat bonus checks because Siegmund Warburg was a banker with style, integrity, and a serious intellect—rare qualities these days.
Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart's The Icarus Syndrome is one of the most important books of the last year about American foreign policy and politics. He brings a sophisticated understanding of American history that's provocative and fascinating.
Stacy Schiff's biography, Cleopatra, reads like a thrilling, delicious novel, and reveals a woman obscured by centuries of bad mascara and pop history. With Schiff we get the true woman, who was brilliant, cunning, and could out-Machiavelli any male ruler.
"Growing up Guinness" should be the name of the mini-series based on Ivana Lowell's juicy memoir, Why Not Say What Happened?, about her mother, Caroline Blackwood, and their complicated Anglo-American, literary-aristocrat family. Stuffed with delicious cameos from the great and forgotten, it's a deeply moving story about her search for her real father.
The Bridge by David Remnick—A truly masterful account of how Barack Obama become Barack Obama.
David Grossman, The Yellow Wind—Though written 25 years ago, still one of most moving, chilling, and human accounts of Israel's occupation of the West Bank that you'll ever read.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies—My friend Siddhartha Mukherjee's brilliant narrative history of the fight against cancer.
These choices are always hard for me, because most years, the best books I read came out two or 20 or 100 years earlier. (To all those people who put 2666 on their lists in 2008—thanks, you were right!) Still, this year, without a doubt, the best new novel I read was David Grossman's searing To The End of the Land, which is so boundlessly compassionate it feels half-holy. Grossman is an artist who captures the tragic complexities of Israeli liberalism in a way that no journalist or historian ever could. Plus, he's better than just about any male novelist I can think of at writing female protagonists. His Ora is so fleshy and vital and tragically real—completely unlike Patty, the artificial marionette at the center of Jonathan Franzen's overrated Freedom. The best new nonfiction book I read was Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra, which is both a wildly atmospheric melodrama and a revisionist history that rescues the reputation of the most maligned female archetype since Eve. The story is at once utterly exotic and strangely relevant, since Cleopatra has been slandered through the centuries for exercising political power as a woman. As Schiff writes, "All the issues that disrupt the dinner table, that go to our heads like snake venom, combine in her person."
Fourteen-hundred pages of reading may seem like a preposterous amount to recommend at the onset of a season of burping indolence, but if the writer of those pages is H.L. Mencken, the most sweepingly judgmental, deliciously pungent, and ornately opinionated journalist in American history, those pages take on the aspect of a blissful treat, to be savored in bites large or small. Prejudices: The Complete Series, reprinted by the Library of America, is a collection of Mencken's essays published between 1919 and 1927, and as one reads them, one cannot help but become depressed (as an act of parallel reaction to being wowed by his prose) by how completely pedestrian (and demotic) American journalism has become.
Anything but demotic is Amar Bhide's A Call For Judgment, subtitled "Sensible Finance For A Dynamic Economy." The author, a wonkily mischievous professor of economics at the Fletcher School, argues that academic finance theory cannot be reformed; it can only be rendered irrelevant. A mad, robotic machine produces mortgages and derivatives by the hundreds of trillions. Financiers (and finance professors) want to tell us that this is good for us. Instinctively, we know it's not, but despair about how to turn the contraption off. Bhide tells us how to channel this angst.
Despair of a different sort has beset those of us who loved the Western, Ataturkist Turkey, now in the throes of an Islamist remake at the hands of a government that is vehemently at odds with the project of Mustafa Kemal. What is happening to Turkey? How worried should we be about the changes in that country? There is no better source of lucidity on the subject than a brilliant, short, accessible book, Torn Country, by Zeyno Baran (published by Hoover Press). Read it, learn a lot, and weep a little.
Parents should take their reading cues, sometimes, from their children; and I have just taken mine from my college-going daughters, both of whom are reading My Last Duchess, by the lushly civilized Daisy Goodwin, a writer of the sort of English style and wit that could once (upon a time) be acquired only at Cambridge University. A tale of love, money, and beauty, the novel, set in the 1890s, pits an American heiress against an English aristocracy that doesn't quite know what to make of her. In a sitting, I raced through the book: a thinking man's bodice-ripper.
This year I reconnected with two of my favorite narrative histories. Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August chronicles the mad rush to global war in 1914 that changed our world decisively and Bruce Catton's trilogy about the Army of the Potomac ( Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox) tells the story of the winning army in the war that made America. Professionally the best book of 2010 on terrorism is by a Norwegian Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia, a brilliantly researched study of the origins and development of the jihad in the Kingdom.
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris—Three decades after The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the epic trilogy is completed. Morris improves on cinema with his eye for detail and narrative momentum, bringing the man in full to life again. One hundred years after he strode across the American stage, we are still longing for a new TR.
Hail Hail Euphoria by Roy Blount Jr.—A small comedic masterpiece detailing the making of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup—described herein as the "greatest war movie ever made"—a look into the business of silliness. It's fast and fun. Blount's casual asides keep the tone lively and laughter flowing.
The World of Jimmy Breslin by Jimmy Breslin—This one's a dispatch from a different era when newspaper columnists knocked on doors, drank during the day, and wrote like unsentimental angels. This volume includes the dodge-the-obvious profiles of the attending emergency room physician and gravedigger for the slain JFK. The best of Breslin is better than anyone else—still the heavyweight champion after all these years.
Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards—The revelation in this 2004 biography is the economy. It's only 166 pages, but this compact package offers the inspiring and instructive story of man who chronicled war and peace and revolutionized radio and television journalism in the process.
The Etiquette of Freedom by Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison—A conversation between two American originals with a companion film called The Practice of the Wild tucked into the back-cover. Snyder is the Zen Beat poet who inspired Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, and Harrison is the unvarnished appetite of American letters and the modern master of the novella. Their conversation is grounding and sweeping, covering nature and literature, two pioneers reminding us about the frontier.
A Journey by Tony Blair—It's not going to win any literary awards, but this autobiography by the greatest statesman of the past two decades is instructive—particularly on the art and discipline of centrist leadership.
The Dragonfly Effect, by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith.
Everyone is talking about how social media tools can be harnessed to maximize business profits or build successful organizations, but no one has demonstrated exactly how to do so until now. Penned by the husband and wife team of Aaker (professor at Stanford Business School) and Smith (VC and tech marketer), The Dragonfly Effect offers detailed examples and step by step analysis of what works in social media and what doesn't. It should be required reading for anyone managing a nonprofit, working for a grass roots cause, or running a Fortune 500 company.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Heavenly Questions is one of the world's finest love poems. The poet's attempt to create and sustain a world beyond death speaks to the deepest achievement of the human heart and intellect.
David Rohde and Kristin Mulvilhill's A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides is the singular and harrowing account of a journalist's captivity in the most important place on earth, and what it means to be the one left behind.
Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti's cookbook, Biscotti, with a foreword by Alice Waters and photographs by Annie Schlecter is an approachable and elegant guide to baking cookies that the least competent among us can approach with confidence.
Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided isn't yet published in the United States, but ought to be a sensation when it is, as it has already proved to be in the United Kingdom. From the author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it chronicles the British contribution—political, personal, military, moral, economic, diplomatic—to the American Civil War
Condoleezza Rice's Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a moving and powerful story of what it was like to grow up in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time of Jim Crow, and is a paean to the decency, morality, charm, and sheer strength of character of Rice's parents.
Athwart History is subtitled "Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions and Illuminations" and is an omnibus edition of the writings of William F. Buckley. Dip into it at random, and discover how the fundamental things that underpin politics have changed very little over the decades, and that Buckley's wisdom covered almost all of them.
The Citizen's Constitution is an annotated guide to the U.S. Constitution by Seth Lipsky, and there is knowledge, erudition, and the occasional shout of surprise on almost every page. One is left feeling utterly humbled that so few people so long ago could have drawn up something so sublime as the U.S. Constitution: Lipsky explains it superbly.
Thomas L. Jeffers biography Norman Podhoretz is a remarkably intelligent, fair-minded and impressive work of scholarship, which brings out the impish humor of one of the most misunderstood public intellectuals of our age. The attacks on this book from the left ought merely to reinforce its importance.
I was a little angry at myself when I first began thinking of my favorite books of the year. Problem was, they were all the same books everybody says were the best. Franzen's Freedom, Keef's Life, Ann Beattie's stories, William Trevor's stories, Moynihan and Bellow's letters... Nobody really needs me for that. So how about I recommend two books about growing up in the Middle East during the 1950s that give us a moving, powerful perspective on the politics and culture of the region from the perspective of teenagers coming to terms with the borders it produced not on the map but in the mind and the heart. OK, one's by a close friend of mine, but you can trust me because his previous book won a Pulitzer Prize: Kai Bird's Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978. It's a memoir of growing up as the son of an itinerant Arabist foreign service officer. The other is by my new friend, well, I only met her once but I really liked her. Her name is Rula Jebreal and the book is Miral, her novelistic rendering of her upbringing in a (Palestinian) Israeli orphanage. My other new friend, Julian Schnabel, made a movie about it, which will be released in March. Trust me.
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff—A crazily ambitious long-shot by the cleverest, most intriguing biographer working today, Cleopatra takes as its subject a historical personality who is more of a floating aura, more sheen than substance, veiled in gauze by her own reputation, illuminated only by the most biased ancient accounts. Schiff succeeds at making her book guiltily readable without compromising by serving up a Hollywood fantasy rather than the actual displaced Greek-speaking Macedonian queen with a hooked nose, strong chin, remarkable real-estate portfolio, and genius for complex geopolitics. Labeled a "rising star of literary biography" when her first, Saint-Exupery, appeared, and complicating matters with her nearly dual biography of Nabokov's wife Vera and then A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, Stacy Schiff has now morphed into the rising star of "Lives of the Great Figures of Antiquity."
Just Kids by Patti Smith—Walking down a SoHo street one spring evening, I ran into Patti Smith on her way to introduce a documentary film about herself at Film Forum. "I'm writing a memoir about Robert," she told me. "I want to put the love back in. They always leave the love out. That was our youth, Brad." With Just Kids, she indeed succeeds at putting the love back in, as well as lots of poetry, vividly evocative details, and nostalgic memories of venues past, reminding us what a sweet, achingly romantic movement was '70s downtown punk. The chapters on her girlhood left tattoo-like impressions on my brain. Most surprising was her wise sanity, as she looked more coolly than Mapplethorpe on Warhol and the lure of "uptown."
Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda—On no day of the week would I be unhappy reading just about anything on T.E. Lawrence. Apparently I'm not alone. To date, we've had 56 biographies, two successful plays, a Hollywood epic, a television docudrama, and multiplying Lawrence of Arabia websites. Yet while "definitive" is an impossible term in the crowded field of Lawrence biography, Korda's boldly titled Hero comes closest to giving this elusive holograph in a white dishdasha a pulse. Korda also makes Lawrence newly relevant by putting emphasis on his culpability for introducing modern guerrilla insurgency tactics to the Middle East: "Today's improved explosive device (IED), the roadside bomb and the suicide bomber are all part of Lawrence's legacy;" and teases out the "what might have been" implications of Lawrence's diplomacy at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference—opposing Ibn Saud, arguing for joint Arab-Jewish governance of Palestine.
Muhammad by Deepak Chopra—A nearly random download on my Kindle—just before boarding a plane—I found Deepak Chopra's novel the finest of his long shelf of books. It's a sleeper novel still in search of its audience. Think Siddhartha for the Muslim set. Existing in that free zone between young adult and "serious" fiction, Muhammad presents its charged story from multiple perspectives, each chapter told by a different main player: Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah; his grandfather Abdul Muttalib; and, most inventively, the Archangel Gabriel, credited with bringing to him the revelation of the Koran. In its epilogue, Chopra returns in his own attractive voice with one of the more level, tough-love, discussions of Islamic religion available.
Michelangelo: A Life on Paper by Leonard Barkan—A sumptuous art book full of brain food, Michelangelo is a book and concept that has been hiding in plain sight for centuries. Princeton University Comp Lit Professor Leonard Barkan has decided to shift his eye, and attention, two inches to the left and right to take seriously all the scribbling, doodling, lines of poetry, and notes to workshop assistants, in the margins of Michelangelo's drawings on paper. (The volume includes more than 200 museum-quality reproductions of the artist's most private papers, many in color.) As quirkily brilliant—and ultimately more satisfying and helpful than—Derrida's '80s meditations on Nietzche's laundry list, Barkan's book is both fun and a paradigm shift.
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by G.K. Chesterton—A nightmare all right: lurid, screwball, and grotesque. A book that will remain relevant as long as governments use ludicrous forms of subterfuge to disguise deviant behavior.
The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, by Mark Vonnegut—The first memoir is a vivid depiction of what it's like to go insane. Cliff Notes version: It's basically like a horrible, interminable acid trip. One example: "From out of nowhere came an incredibly wrinkled, iridescent face. Starting as a small point infinitely distant, it rushed forward, becoming infinitely huge. I could see nothing else."
In his new memoir, 35 years and several crack-ups later, Vonnegut is more reflective. He writes insightfully about his profession (he's a doctor, naturally), his father (Kurt), the value of art, and the blessings of illness ("A human without a disease is like a ship without a rudder"). But the best stuff is again about going insane: "It's important to me that I owned the house they took me out of in a straightjacket."
Bad As I Wanna Be, by Dennis Rodman—I'm a Knicks fan so Rodman always irked me, but I was won over by 1) his book jacket photo (naked, with orange hair, on a motorcycle); 2) his description of sex with Madonna (it was pretty good, not great); 3) and the insinuation that one of the main reasons for his outlandish success as a rebounder was his opponents' revulsion at his physical appearance.
The two books I am reading now with great pleasure, are Simon Winchester's Atlantic, which I wish I had written, and the Duchess of Devonshire's book, which is full of gems, particularly the few—but hilarious—stories about Evelyn Waugh. Otherwise, my most important reading of the moment is David McCullough's new book, which I am enjoying hugely.
The Patterns of Paper Monsters, by Emma Rathbone—This funny, terrifically enjoyable debut, set in a juvenile detention center in northern Virginia has shades of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the most appealing 17-year-old delinquent protagonist I've encountered in some time. It's funny and fast-paced, and has, to me, the year's saddest ending.
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan—Egan's novel-in-stories is wonderfully unpredictable: a smart, daisy-chain narrative about rock music and growing up. It's good start to finish, but the PowerPoint chapter is an absolute must-read. ( Read review)
The Room and the Chair, by Lorraine Adams—Adams' spidery, propulsive novel gives us a newsroom crisis at a thinly disguised Washington Post, the war in Afghanistan, a shadowy U.S. intelligence official, and a double-agent Iranian nuclear scientist. It's Syriana meets The Wire: as timely as fiction gets.
The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte—The funniest sentences of the year, probably of the last six years (or since the author's previous novel Homeland). No one puts male failure and foibles on the page as well as Lipsyte.
Steven Rattner's Overhaul. I have no interest in cars other than whether my 1998 Honda will run another year. This book is really about the Obama White House and gives the first insider account of how the big players act when the door closes. Relish Rahm Emanuel's F—k You to the UAW but stay around for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's giggle and Larry Summers brilliant and chaotic march through the West Wing.
Read Steve Weisman's A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary and weep for a time gone by. Weisman stitches together—in prose almost as elegant as the Senator's—a lifetime of letters that bring to vivid life the intellectual journey of a restless, informed, and joyful mind. If only there were another like him.