The best books of 2011 were about China, Congo, Afghanistan, Charles Dickens, Vincent van Gogh, the “Flora Delanica”, Jerusalem, Mumbai’s dance bars, quantum physics, sugar, orgasms, blue nights, two moons and other people’s money
Politics and current affairs
Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. By Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan. Princeton University Press; 352 pages; $35 and ￡24.95
Few things will affect our future more than migration. By calculating the how, where and why of future labour shortages, the authors analyse the costs and benefits of human migration.
Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China. By Jianying Zha. The New Press; 240 pages; $24.95 and ￡18.99
A highly readable study from a Beijing-born writer for the New Yorker about China’s “tide players”, the intellectual and entrepreneurial pragmatists who prosper by pushing at the boundaries of what the state permits while taking care never to overstep the mark.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. By Jason Stearns. PublicAffairs; 400 pages; $28.99 and ￡18.99
A serious account of the social and political forces behind one of the most violent clashes of modern times—a 15-year war in Congo that has spilled over into neighbouring countries and claimed as many as 5m lives—by one of its most meticulous and empathetic observers.
Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign. By Sherard Cowper-Coles. Harper Press; 352 pages; ￡25
A former British ambassador to Afghanistan—and an outspoken early critic of Western policy—breaks out of the static group-think and argues that the current military-led strategy in the country is fatally flawed.
The 9/11 Wars. By Jason Burke. Penguin Global; 709 pages; $20. Allen Lane; ￡30
An ambitious attempt to knit into a coherent whole the sprawling fabric of the “war on terror”. Jason Burke of the Guardian, who has covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East through every phase of the conflict, focuses on the ordinary people affected by the troubles rather than on decision-makers in far-off capitals.
Pakistan: A Hard Country. By Anatol Lieven. PublicAffairs; 558 pages; $35. Allen Lane; ￡30
A former Times reporter who now teaches at King’s College London, Anatol Lieven has travelled widely through Pakistan talking to generals, shopkeepers, farmers, lawyers and bureaucrats. A book that captures all the drama and colour of this complex Muslim nation.
Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise. By Carl Walter and Fraser Howie. Wiley; 250 pages; $29.95 and ￡19.99
Two bankers with years of experience in China shine an unprecedented light on the remarkable 32-year effort to build the country’s financial system—on its vices, virtues and many conflicts of interest.
Biography and memoir
Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. By Ezra Vogel. Belknap Press; 928 pages; $39.95
An American former intelligence officer in East Asia examines Deng Xiaoping’s role in transforming impoverished, brutalised China into an economic and political superpower.
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961. By Paul Hendrickson. Knopf; 544 pages; $30. To be published in Britain in January by Bodley Head; ￡20
The author, an accomplished storyteller, interprets myriad tiny details of Ernest Hemingway’s life, and through them says something new about a writer everyone thinks they know.
Blue Nights. By Joan Didion. Knopf; 208 pages; $25. Fourth Estate; ￡14.99
Even when Joan Didion writes about the hard drama of her own life, particularly the sudden death of her husband followed by the death of her only daughter, her memoirs manage to be larger than her own grief. This is a beautiful book, tragic and profound.
Van Gogh: The Life. By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Random House; 953 pages; $40. Profile; ￡30
An ambitious, original book, by two energetic art-history researchers, which describes the sublime Impressionist as a lonely, syphilitic boozer who bit the hands that fed him.
Charles Dickens: A Life. By Claire Tomalin. Penguin Press; 576 pages; $36. Viking; ￡30
This is a superb life of Britain’s greatest novelist by its greatest literary biographer.
Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of Love, War and Redemption. By Janine di Giovanni. Knopf; 304 pages; $26.95. Bloomsbury; ￡16.99
A beautifully written memoir, by a Paris-based American war reporter, about the pain of adjusting to normal life after being exposed to the intensity of battle.
The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins her Life’s Work at 72. By Molly Peacock. Bloomsbury; 397 pages; $30 and ￡20
How Mary Delaney—aristocrat, gardener, woman of fashion and friend to Jonathan Swift and King George III—created the “Flora Delanica”. Less a biography, more an extended prose poem.
Economics and business
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. By Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. PublicAffairs; 336 pages; $26.99 and ￡17.99
An engrossing book by two young economists who draw on some intrepid research and a store of personal anecdotes to illuminate the lives of the 865m people who live on less than $0.99 a day. Winner of the 2011 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs business book of the year award.
The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. By Tyler Cowen. Dutton Adult; 128 pages; $12.95
A small book full of big ideas about the historic changes wrought through education and innovation. An American economist offers plenty to think about for readers of every ideological stripe.
Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. By Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. Times Books; 331 pages; $30 and ￡19.99
Gretchen Morgenson, a veteran New York Times reporter, and Joshua Rosner, a consultant, join up the dots between Congress, special-interest groups, government-sponsored enterprises and Wall Street, including many that other books failed to link, and provide the best account yet of how the American mortgage system went off the rails.
Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. By William Cohan. Doubleday; 672 pages; $30.50. Allen Lane; ￡25
A rollercoaster account of how Goldman Sachs does business, and the best analysis yet of its increasingly tangled web of conflicts, by a master-storyteller.
Jerusalem: The Biography. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf; 638 pages; $35. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; ￡25
The rich and absorbing story of the only city that exists both on heaven and on Earth, as told through its prophets, poets, peasants, kings and conquerors. After his acclaimed biographies of Stalin, Catherine the Great and her lover, Potemkin, Simon Sebag Montefiore has finally turned to the book he was born to write.
The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. By David Abulafia. Oxford University Press; 783 pages; $34.95. Allen Lane; ￡30
How the Mediterranean became a net exporter of economic and cultural might and the thoroughfare between the Atlantic and Asia. The author is an influential Cambridge historian.
The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination. By Javier Cercas. Bloomsbury; 403 pages; $18 and ￡18.99
The most widely read book on the 1981 failed coup in Spain, which was first published in 2009 and has now been translated into English. A persuasive and absorbing work by a Spanish novelist and former academic.
Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth. By Frederick Kempe. Putnam Adult; 608 pages; $29.95
A lively, meticulous account of a crucial year in history, when the third world war nearly started in Berlin.
The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples. By David Gilmour. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 480 pages; $32.50. Allen Lane; ￡25
On the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unifi8cation some of its countrymen are asking whether the Risorgimento did more harm than good. A richly detailed account of a controversial question by a British historian and biographer.
The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies. By Matthew Parker. Walker & Co; 446 pages; $30. Hutchinson; ￡25
A tale of wealth, bravery and debauchery—and how the foundations of the modern globalised world were made of sugar—by the author of an excellent earlier work, “Panama Fever”.
Science and technology
The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen. By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Allen Lane; 255 pages; ￡20. To be published in America in January by Da Capo Press; $25
A book that breaks all the rules of popular science-writing, by two of Britain’s best known physicists.
Thinking, Fast and Slow. By Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 512 pages; $30. Allen Lane; ￡25
The Nobel prize-winning father of behavioural economics and one of the world’s most influential psychologists, Daniel Kahneman shows how we are not at all the paragons of reason that we so often believe ourselves to be.
Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet. By David Victor. Cambridge University Press; 392 pages; $40 and ￡25
A sophisticated analysis of the effects of global warming which shows that the current approach to the problem of climate change is a mostly ineffective mess and that alternative approaches will be hard and time-consuming to get up and running—but worth it in the end.
The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans. By Mark Lynas. National Geographic; 280 pages; $25. Fourth Estate; ￡14.99
A highly readable account of how we came to be living in the Anthropocene age and what we can do about it.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. By James Gleick. Pantheon; 544 pages; $29.95. Fourth Estate; ￡25
A sprawling yet fascinating book by an acclaimed American science writer, “The Information” ranges from biology to particle physics and explores the links between information, communications, data and meaning from earliest times to the present day.
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. By David Deutsch. Viking; 487 pages; $30. Allen Lane; ￡25
The long-awaited survey of humanity’s quest for explanation and understanding by an Oxford University quantum physicist who believes that science is as infinite as the human thirst for knowledge.
Revolutions that Made the Earth. By Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson. Oxford University Press; 440 pages; $52.95 and ￡29.95
An analysis of the evolutionary changes that took place on Earth in response to sudden changes in temperature or atmospheric conditions, by two followers of James Lovelock, the father of the popular theory of Gaia, the self-regulating planetary system.
Culture, society and travel
The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 802 pages; $40. Published in Britain as “The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes” by Allen Lane; ￡30
Steven Pinker’s exploration, within psychology, neuroscience, politics and economics, of why all forms of violence have seen huge long-term declines is a subtle piece of natural philosophy to rival that of the great thinkers of the Enlighten8ment. He writes like an angel too.
Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America. By Christopher Turner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 544 pages; $35. Fourth Estate; ￡25
A smart and engaging work of social history that considers sex, psychoanalysis, consumerism and some of the darkest moments of the 20th century.
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. By Edward Glaeser. Penguin; 336 pages; $29.95. Macmillan; ￡25
This enthusiastic guide to the blessings of human proximity explains why half of humanity now lives in cities and why 5m more are moving there from the countryside every month.
Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. By Sonia Faleiro. Canongate; 240 pages; ￡12.99. To be published in America in March by Grove Press; $15
A pitch-perfect conga through the dance bars of Mumbai. The author also explores middle-class marriage in India and its hypocrisies, and the challenges of trying to make it on your own in India’s biggest commercial city.
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. By Elif Batuman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 298 pages; $15. Granta; ￡16.99
A bracing travelogue of literary adventures by a six-foot-tall American-born Turkish academic. Her erudite enthusiasm for Russia’s big, gloomy and occasionally illogical fiction is as vivid as her humour and sense of romance.
People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman. By Richard Lloyd Parry. Jonathan Cape; 404 pages; ￡17.99. To be published in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May; $16
A page-turning, if horrifying, read about the murder of a young Englishwoman in Japan and the dubious workings of the Japanese criminal-justice system. Thorough, fair-minded and full of insight.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press; 168 pages; $25 and ￡18
An unputdownable story that takes in child abuse, sexual taboo and a ringside trial seat in front of the famous Supreme Court “hanging judge”, Robert Hanophy.
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. By David Bellos. Faber & Faber; 400 pages; $27. Particular Books; ￡20
A wonderful, witty book about words, language and cultural anthropology by a scholar whose fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating.
The Art of Camping: The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars. By Matthew De Abaitua. Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; ￡14.99
A memoir of how camping means exploring an unfamiliar place while recreating the safe comforts of home, by an editor-at-large of the Idler and an inveterate fan of guys and poles.
1Q84. By Haruki Murakami. Books 1 and 2 translated by Jay Rubin and Book 3 by Philip Gabriel. Knopf; 944 pages; $30.50. Harvill; ￡34.99
A wild and wilful romance involving a black cat, two moons and a host of nocturnal little people—as well as a boy and a girl.
Other People’s Money. By Justin Cartwright. Bloomsbury; 258 pages; $15 and ￡18.99
Born in South Africa, now living in Britain, Justin Cartwright casts a sharp outsider’s eye on the City of London and its shenanigans. A novel that is both funny and wise.
Open City. By Teju Cole. Random House; 272 pages; $25. Faber & Faber; ￡12.99
An unusual accomplishment, “Open City” is a precise and poetic meditation on love, race, identity, friendship, memory, dislocation and Manhattan bird life.
The Marriage Plot. By Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 416 pages; $28. Fourth Estate; ￡20
A rich and textured evocation of the quest for marriage or how true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel.
Train Dreams. By Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 128 pages; $18
This dense, mesmerising novella about a labourer in the American West conjures up a life lived in the 20th century that reads like it was long, long ago.
The Tiger’s Wife. By Tea Obreht. Random House; 352 pages; $15. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; ￡12.99
This story, by a 25-year-old Serbian-American woman, of a young Balkan doctor named Natalia, her family and their homeland, is highly original, funny and frightening, and proof that there is no formula for precocity. Winner of the 2011 Orange prize for fiction.
The Cat’s Table. By Michael Ondaatje. Knopf; 304 pages; $26. Jonathan Cape; ￡16.99
A personal story of dislocation by a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist. Superbly poised between the magic of innocence and the melancholy of experience.
The Afrika Reich. By Guy Saville. Hodder & Stoughton; 433 pages; ￡12.99
A rich and unusual what-if historical thriller that is politically sophisticated and hard to forget.
Australian Poetry Since 1788. Edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. University of New South Wales Press; 1,108 pages; $66.95 and ￡54.95
An exemplary anthology and a generous account of a poetry that deserves to be better known; from Aboriginal song cycles and settler ballads to recent work by Les Murray, Philip Hodgkins and the editors themselves.
Memorial. By Alice Oswald. Faber & Faber; 84 pages; ￡12.99
This vivid and moving poem weaves together two vital threads from the “Iliad”: the unique ephemerality of each man killed in war and the recurrent, timeless pictures of nature and human activity captured in Homer’s similes.
Clavics. By Geoffrey Hill. Enitharmon Press; 41 pages; $29.95 and ￡12
An intense and austere new collection by the Oxford professor of poetry, who has been called “the greatest living poet in the English language”.
The Economist, Dec. 10, 2011.