The best books of 2012 were about Richard Burton, Titian, Rin Tin Tin, the revolution in Iran, the great famine in China, secret houses in London, good oil companies, bad pharma and management in ten words
Politics and current affairs
The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. By Michael Grunwald. Simon & Schuster; 528 pages.
The most interesting book so far about the first Obama administration and what the president’s $787 billion stimulus package was actually spent on, by an award-winning author and journalist. Even Republicans should read it.
The Immigrant Exodus: Why America is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. By Vivek Wadhwa. Wharton Digital Press; 106 pages.
A nation that can attract the cleverest people in the world can innovate and prosper indefinitely. An Indian-American technology entrepreneur and academic explains how America is forgetting this crucial lesson—to its cost.
Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and its Consequences. By James Buchan. Viking; 482 pages.
A British scholar of Persian, who first travelled to Iran in 1975, offers an elegant and textured analysis of why the shah, Iran’s wealth-creator king, was replaced in 1979 with a Shia divine who was deeply uninterested in modern government.
From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. By Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages.
A subtle, erudite and entertaining account of how Asian thinkers have responded to the declining prestige of the West by a leading Indian public intellectual who, with a surprising new perspective, is the heir to Edward Said.
Biography and memoir
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson—Volume 4. By Robert Caro. Knopf; 736 pages.
Robert Caro has spent 30 years parsing the life of America’s 36th president, Lyndon Johnson. The series’ crowning volume follows Johnson to Dallas, Texas—and the White House.
Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. Edited by Noel Malcolm. Oxford University Press; 1,832 pages.
After 30 years’ work, Noel Malcolm, journalist, commentator and polymath at All Souls College, Oxford, publishes the first fully-critical edition of “Leviathan”, the most important work by Britain’s first philosopher.
The Richard Burton Diaries. Edited by Chris Williams. Yale University Press; 704 pages.
Proof that Richard Burton really was a man for all seasons; a writer and intellectual as well as an actor.
Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and the War on Terror—The Hidden Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. By Deborah Scroggins. Harper; 560 pages.
Two women, one from Somalia and the other from Pakistan, are born in the heart of conservative Islam into families of some prominence and move to America. Once there, they take radically different paths. One is now an admired public intellectual; the other is serving an 86-year prison sentence in Fort Worth, Texas.
Titian: His Life. By Sheila Hale. Harper; 864 pages.
How the greatest painter of the Venetian renaissance opened up a natural world of landscape, portraiture and sexual arousal.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. By D.T. Max. Viking; 368 pages.
An arsenal of Wittgenstein, hipster slang and modernist tricks turned a clever confused young man into a literary rock star.
Raffles and the Golden Opportunity. By Victoria Glendinning. Profile; 352 pages.
The sprawling life of a son of the British empire, who freed slaves, banned cock fighting, supported smallpox vaccination, abolished cruel punishment and even founded the future state of Singapore. Victoria Glendinning is in danger of giving imperialism a good name.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. By Susan Orlean. Simon & Schuster; 336 pages.
A story of a dog mourned as “a gentleman, a scholar, a hero and a cinema star”, and a meditation on the durability of myth and the nature of heroism.
Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa. By Alan Root. Chatto & Windus; 336 pages.
Africa’s most gifted wildlife film-maker recalls a lifetime watching hippos, termites and the world inside a baobab tree—and remembers how he lost a wife and many friends who died too young, but eventually found new love.
The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect and Visionary. By Jenny Uglow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 352 pages.
The story of a 19th-century architect, daughter of a local squire in the north of England, and the decorated church she built in the Cumbrian village of Wreay.
When I Was a Child I Read Books. By Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 224 pages.
Raised as a Presbyterian before becoming a Calvinist, Marilynne Robinson is now a great defender of Calvinism. A meditation on growing up, on an unhurried relationship with time, on how very many people have a “wistfulness and regret for the loss of Christianity” and on how reading turned her into a writer.
Bertie: A Life of Edward VII. By Jane Ridley. Chatto & Windus; 624 pages.
How a prince whose favourite pursuits were racing, shooting, gambling and seduction turned into a hard-working, clever king and a most able diplomat.
Joseph Anton. By Salman Rushdie. Random House; 656 pages.
One of the most talked-about novelists of the past three decades. Difficult to like, difficult to read, but still the test case for freedom of the mind. An honest and lyrical memoir that is quite fascinating.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56. By Anne Applebaum. Doubleday; 608 pages.
A highly readable and trenchant analysis by the Pulitzer prize-winning author of “Gulag”. Anne Applebaum picks through the rubble of eastern Europe’s most difficult decade and traces how, in the end, the Soviet empire’s ambitions there contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 656 pages.
A shocking Chinese account of Chairman Mao’s great famine by a man who became a senior reporter for Xinhua, the official news agency, and whose father starved to death in the middle of it.
Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. By John Darwin. Bloomsbury: 480 pages.
John Darwin is neither the British empire’s propagandist nor its opponent. Instead he draws a vivid account of the stages by which various colonies and dominions took shape, developed and then went their own way. Mr Darwin knows the subject backwards and in this book he is at the top of his game.
The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. By Halik Kochanski. Harvard University Press; 784 pages.
Poland fought from the first day of the second world war until the last—and lost a fifth of its population. The first comprehensive English account of Poland at war weaves together the political, military, diplomatic and human strands, interspersing them with observations drawn from the author’s family experiences.
Economics and business
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Crown; 544 pages.
Nations fail because their leaders are greedy, selfish and ignorant of history. A powerful analysis that looks beyond the obvious and is full of surprises.
Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power. By Steve Coll. Penguin Press; 704 pages.
A forensic look at the biggest and, by some measures, the most profitable of the Western “supermajor” oil companies.
The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalisation and the End of Mass Production. By Peter Marsh. Yale University Press; 320 pages.
A fizzing analysis of the history and geography of manufacturing and where it is heading by an editor at the Financial Times.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. By Arthur Herman. Random House; 432 pages.
How America’s moribund military-industrial complex was able to respond to President Franklin Roosevelt’s call to arms with an astounding show of energy.
Management in 10 Words. By Terry Leahy. Crown Business; 320 pages.
A surprising and incisive management page-turner that has interesting things to say about everything from the evolution of British society to the art of transforming huge organisations, by someone who should know—a one-time Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy.
Science and Technology
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. By David Quammen. W.W. Norton; 592 pages.
A respected and highly readable American science writer argues that zoonotic infections, such as AIDS, Ebola and Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever, that pass from animals to humans, will be the cause of the next great human pandemic. The only unknowns are where and when?
The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. By Faramerz Dabhoiwala. OUP USA; 496 pages.
A brilliantly researched account of the original (and arguably more important) sexual revolution that took place in the 18th century, when, for the first time, sexual relations and tastes were seen as largely a private matter for individuals to determine rather than a busybody state to police.
The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’t. By Nate Silver. Penguin Press; 544 pages.
The Zen master to American election-watchers, who correctly called the result in all 50 states during this year’s presidential election, turns his gimlet eye on probability theory and why people should try to be more like foxes than hedgehogs—and focus on making predictions in the way that gamblers do.
Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. By Ben Goldacre. Faber and Faber; 488 pages.
How doctors and the patients they treat are hobbled by needless ignorance within the $600 billion pharmaceutical industry, which does not always publish the truth about whether its new drugs work, whether they are better than drugs already on the market and whether their side effects are a price worth paying.
Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea. By Callum Roberts. Viking; 416 pages.
Overfishing, global warming and pollution threaten to transform the ocean—and perhaps life as we know it. We had better fix the problem while we still can.
Culture, society, sport and travel
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House; 288 pages.
Why aspiration in a slum is so often met with resentment and ambition undercut by rivalry. And how, despite all that, these grim stories of poverty are also frequently edged with hope.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. By Andrew Solomon. Scribner; 976 pages.
A ground-breaking book in which an eminent American writer on depression describes how children who are gay, deaf, dwarves, schizophrenic or have Down’s syndrome discover their identities—and asks whether close contact with disabled people will make the world more human.
Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras. By Tom Service. Faber and Faber; 304 pages.
With infectious and easily worn enthusiasm, a British radio presenter focuses on what exactly happens when a conductor raises his baton—and offers some startling insights.
The Art of the Restaurateur. By Nicholas Lander. Phaidon; 352 pages.
How passionate cooks risk their money, health, marriages and sanity making their customers happy. An uplifting tale about one of the most stressful jobs in the world.
The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France—Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning at all Costs. By Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle. Bantam; 304 pages; £18.99.
A courageous act of witness by a sportsman who was Lance Armstrong’s most trusted lieutenant, and who, after he was caught doping, became determined to reveal the sordid truth about cycling.
Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War. By Ben Rawlence. Oneworld; 320 pages.
A refreshing memoir that focuses on how people live in Africa’s second-biggest nation, rather than how they die—and for once does not mention Mr Kurtz.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. By Wade Davis. Knopf; 672 pages.
A haunting exploration of the 1920s Everest expeditions, told almost as myth and legend. Brilliantly interwoven with the story of how the first world war shaped these men, it is meticulously well researched and deftly told.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. By Robert Macfarlane. Viking; 433 pages.
How a Cambridge academic walked more than 7,000 miles and ended up lying on his back in deep snow, gazing up at the stars. A book of place and pilgrimage.
On Warne. By Gideon Haigh. Simon & Schuster; 224 pages.
The sport’s most accomplished historian finds something new to say about the finest cricketer of our time.
Great Houses of London. By James Stourton. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg. Frances Lincoln; 352 pages.
A fascinating and witty tour of some of London’s most elegant (and most secret) houses and the people who built them.
Swim: Why We Love the Water. By Lynn Sherr. PublicAffairs; 232 pages.
At 69 and with a duff knee, the author trains enough to swim the Hellespont (like Lord Byron). All the skinny on dipping.
Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach. By Jean Sprackland. Jonathan Cape; 256 pages.
A gentle British poet writes of the encounters with “cargoes of mystery” that are delivered by each ocean tide.
How to Stay Sane. By Philippa Perry. School of Life/Macmillan; 60 pages.
Sanity, Philippa Perry shows in this brilliant little book, is not about normality, but about how to maintain a flexible position between rigidity and chaos.
Fiction, essays and poetry
Bring Up the Bodies. By Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt; 432 pages.
The second volume of the Man Booker prize-winning trilogy focuses on the travails of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. A novel that is made by one brilliant word: “exsanguinated”.
The Forgiven. By Lawrence Osborne. Hogarth; 288 pages.
A creepy novel that opens when a British couple, on their way to a lavish party in Morocco, run over and kill a young local man. A quick, streamlined novel with an end that is both surprising and dark.
Toby’s Room. By Pat Barker. Doubleday; 320 pages.
Pat Barker’s first novel since her Man Booker prize-winning, “Regeneration” trilogy, is an enthralling and uplifting read despite the sorrow that is at the heart of every character in the story.
The Dinner. By Herman Koch. Translated by Sam Garrett. Hogarth; 304 pages.
A family whodunnit in the theatrical setting of a five-course dinner. The summer’s best read gives new meaning to bad table manners.
The Garden of Evening Mists. By Tan Twang Eng. Weinstein; 352 pages.
A haunting meditation on colonialism, gardens and tattooing, set against the Malay insurgency of the 1950s.
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. By Philip Pullman. Viking; 400 pages.
A delightfully wry reworking, by a master storyteller, of the anarchic fairy tales of the brothers Grimm.
Winter: Five Windows on the Season. By Adam Gopnik. Quercus; 288 pages.
No other season quite captures the imagination as winter does, and Adam Gopnik, a Canadian-raised writer at the New Yorker, is its greatest fan. Makes chilliness worth every minute.
Pulphead: Essays. By John Jeremiah Sullivan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 384 pages.
The Southern editor of the Paris Review can write as scintillatingly about the tea party, Michael Jackson or Hurricane Katrina as he can about rare Southern folk-blues or American reality television.
Three Strong Women. By Marie N’Diaye. Translated by John Fletcher. Knopf; 304 pages.
Three women whose lives are strung between Africa and Europe find the strength to say no, by the winner of the 2009 Prix Goncourt.
Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011. By James Fenton. Faber and Faber; 176 pages.
James Fenton’s poetic voice has a simple lyricism and a vivid gracefulness. Most important, these poems suggest that at 63, he still has a great future.
Place: New Poems. By Jorie Graham. Ecco; 96 pages.
An evocative new collection by a Pulitzer prize-winning poet. Set between New Hampshire, France and Northern Ireland, “Place” won the British Forward prize for poetry and has been nominated for the T.S. Eliot award.