The best books of 2016 are about China, language, microbes, hereditary power, inequality and medieval manuscripts
Politics and current affairs
China’s Future. By David Shambaugh. Polity; 195 pages; $19.95 and £14.99
No country has modernised its economy without also becoming a democracy. A respected American political scientist asks whether China can break the mould.
Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism. By Charles Clover. Yale University Press; 360 pages; $35 and £25
A veteran Financial Times correspondent analyses what really motivates the regime in Moscow by tracing the rise of Eurasianism: the belief (crudely put) that Russia’s national identity is determined by ethnicity, geography and destiny.
The Euro and the Battle of Ideas. By Markus Brunnermeier, Harold James and Jean-Pierre Landau. Princeton University Press; 440 pages; $35 and £24.95
Three authors focus on France and Germany to tease out the clashing economic ideas that make up the euro project. The Germans like rules and discipline, and fret about excessive debt and the moral hazard created by bail-outs. The French prefer flexibility and discretion, and worry about the lack of a mutualised debt instrument. German policymakers are often lawyers, French ones more frequently economists. Not a happy marriage.
CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. By Kerry Brown. I.B. Tauris; 288 pages; $28 and £20
What sort of leader is Xi Jinping? There are few political questions to which the answer will have greater bearing on people as this. By an expert British China-watcher.
China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. By Minxin Pei. Harvard University Press; 365 pages; $35 and £25.95
How decentralising the rights of control over state property, without clarifying the rules of ownership, offered those who rule China the greatest chance in history to grow rich, by a professor of government now based in California.
The Egyptians: A Radical Story. By Jack Shenker. Allen Lane; 528 pages; £15.99
A refreshing account, by a young reporter on the Guardian, of the movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. What distinguishes his writing from others’ is his presence in the slums, factories and homes where Egyptians first began questioning their relations with their rulers. Mr Shenker evokes despair at the economy of this badly run country, but also surprising hope for its future, thanks to a young generation that says it is “no longer prepared to put up with the old crap”.
Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan. By Isabel Buchanan. Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; £16.99
Two young lawyers, one Pakistani and one British (the author), launch themselves into the dark world of Pakistan’s death row, where 8,000 people await execution. A remarkable first book written with verve and an eye for telling detail.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. By J.D. Vance. Harper; 264 pages; $27.99. William Collins; £14.99
Why so many people want to believe that Donald Trump will bring back manufacturing jobs and keep immigrants out. Possibly the most important recent book about America.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. By Sonny Liew. Pantheon; 320 pages; $30 and £25
A brilliantly inventive graphic novel, which took several years to complete, weighs up the costs and benefits of life in the small, authoritarian, model city-state that Lee Kwan Yew founded half a century ago. By a Malaysian-born comic artist and illustrator, now based in Singapore.
The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine. By Ben Ehrenreich. Penguin Press; 428 pages; $28. Granta; £14.99
An elegant and moving account of the trials of one family, a tale that is symbolic of the daily lives of many Palestinians.
Biography and memoir
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between. By Hisham Matar. Random House; 256 pages; $26. Viking; £14.99
A beautifully written memoir that deals with the nature of family, the emotions of exile and the ties that link the present with the past—in particular, the son with his father, Jaballa Matar, who disappeared in a notorious Libyan prison.
Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. By John Guy. Viking; 490 pages; $35 and £25
Most historians focus on the early decades, with Elizabeth’s last years acting as a postscript to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. An Australian-born historian, now a fellow at Cambridge, argues that this period is crucial to understanding a more human side of the smart redhead.
Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India. By Vinay Sitapati. Penguin India; 391 pages; 699 rupees
The real father of India’s economic reforms deserves a place alongside Nehru as India’s most important prime minister. Instead he was cast into ignominy and obscurity. An important book, by a young doctoral student at Princeton, that deserves wider circulation.
When Breath Becomes Air. By Paul Kalanithi. Random House; 238 pages; $25. Bodley Head; £12.99
A young neurosurgeon, dying of cancer, examines his life, especially the gift of language, the parts of the brain that control it and its centrality to what makes us human. A powerful and compelling read.
Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. By Gareth Stedman Jones. Belknap; 768 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £35
A British historian re-evaluates Marx in the 21st century. There is no better guide than this professor of the history of ideas at the University of London.
Negroland: A Memoir. By Margo Jefferson. Vintage; 248 pages; $16. Granta; £12.99
Growing up an African-American of privilege and wealth might seem cushy. But this penetrating memoir shows how those who were spared the brutality of southern segregation nevertheless had to learn to navigate a much subtler set of tacit rules and assumptions: excel, but don’t show off; be comfortable anywhere, but be aware that prejudice can rear its ugly head at any moment.
Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation”. By James Stourton. Knopf; 478 pages; $35. William Collins; £30
At once cold and grand, Kenneth Clark would be easy to mock. A carefully researched and thoughtful biography of a conflicted and curiously unknowable man who became the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century, by a former chairman of Sotheby’s.
Born to Run. By Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster; 528 pages; $32.50 and £20
The timely autobiography of the bard of American deindustrialisation, whose songs recognise and honour blue-collar woes. His stories have never aged; years after they were written they remain a lesson in empathy for the white-collar fans he has always attracted.
But You Did Not Come Back. By Marceline Loridan-Ivens. Translated by Sandra Smith. Atlantic Monthly Press; 112 pages; $22. Faber; £12.99
In 1944, when she was 15, the author and her father were captured and deported; he to Auschwitz, she to Birkenau. She returned; he never did. It took her 70 years to write her story. In tight, unsparing prose, she confronts the delusions her father held, and the lies she told herself. A small book with a big voice.
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography. By Elaine Showalter. Simon & Schuster; 243 pages; $28
A delightful life, by a spirited academic, of a 19th-century American woman who wrote poetry, plays and books, became a tireless speaker for feminist causes, notably women’s right to vote. Her life intersected with Longfellow, the Brownings, Louisa May Alcott and Henry James. But she is best known for writing the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman. By Minoo Dinshaw. Allen Lane; 767 pages; £30
By the time he died, in 2000 at the age of 97, Sir Steven Runciman had become convinced that he was a relic of a past age and the embodiment of a nearly mythical era. A lively life of a colourful British historian who was best known for his work on the Crusades, by a promising young author. A debut to be proud of.
The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China. By Philip Ball. Bodley Head; 316 pages; £25. To be published in America by University of Chicago Press in March 2017
How two great rivers—the Yellow river and the Yangzi—shaped China’s history. By a British science writer who for 20 years was an editor at Nature.
The Romanovs: 1613-1918. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf; 784 pages; $35. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £25
A cruel history of hereditary power, by a master storyteller who lifts this unfamiliar narrative with vivid, amusing and surprising details.
The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914. By Richard Evans. Viking; 928 pages; $40. Allen Lane; £35
A distinguished scholar of Germany tots up the winners and losers in the century after the Battle of Waterloo, which could rightly be described as the first age of globalisation.
Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. By Peter Wilson. Belknap; 941 pages; $39.95. Allen Lane; £35
The Holy Roman Empire, on paper, looked more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a blueprint for modern Europe—and yet it worked well, nonetheless. A masterly retelling, by an Oxford historian.
Lenin on the Train. By Catherine Merridale. Allen Lane; 353 pages; £25. To be published in America by Metropolitan in March 2017
How Vladimir Lenin’s railway journey from Switzerland to Russia led to the revolution and changed his country—and the world—for ever. An insightful and sympathetic account, by one of the foremost historians of Russia.
East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. By Philippe Sands. Knopf; 448 pages; $32.50 Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £20
A distinguished Franco-British advocate traces how a single important word entered the legal canon, while examining the lives of those who brought it into being and the wartime experiences of his own Jewish relatives in Europe. An un-put-downable winner of the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction.
Economics and business
The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War. By Robert Gordon. Princeton University Press; 762 pages; $39.95 and £29.95
Why economic growth soared in America in the early 20th century, and why it won’t be soaring again any time soon, by an outspoken economist who teaches at Northwestern University.
Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation. By Branko Milanovic. Belknap; 299 pages; $29.95. Harvard University Press; £23.95
Surprisingly little is known about what causes inequality. An economist at the Luxembourg Income Study Centre and the City University of New York proposes a bold and interesting new theory.
The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization. By Richard Baldwin. Belknap; 329 pages; $29.95 and £22.95
Globalisation has changed fundamentally since the internet revolution in the 1990s. Whereas 20th-century trade involved competition between countries, 21st-century trade is fuzzier, with supply chains crossing borders. An American academic, working in Geneva, argues that, while it might be difficult to help the losers, reversing the trend is even harder.
The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan. By Sebastian Mallaby. Penguin Press; 781 pages; $40. Bloomsbury; £25
Once a hero, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve is now being called a villain. Sebastian Mallaby, who used to write for The Economist and is married to our editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, examines whether Alan Greenspan was to blame for the financial crisis. Winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award 2016.
Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. By Duncan Clark. Ecco; 287 pages; $27.99 and £18.99
An intriguing insider’s account of how Jack Ma conquered China’s internet, by an early adviser to the company
Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story. By John Bloom. Atlantic Monthly Press; 537 pages; $27.50. Grove Press; £16.99
The exhaustive (and exhausting) tale of the Iridium communications project and how it was brought back from the dead.
Culture, society and travel
Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers. By Lucy Crehan. Unbound; 304 pages; £16.99
Too much writing about education is polemical and ill-informed. Lucy Crehan’s book is refreshingly fair-minded and makes a case that there is a lot to learn about how other countries learn.
Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. By Timothy Garton Ash. Yale University Press; 491 pages; $30. Atlantic; £20
How urbanisation and the spread of the internet has increased the possibilities of freedom of expression, but also the consequences that stem from it. A distillation of a lifetime’s research and writing, by the Oxford academic who also created freespeechdebate.com.
Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. By Gary Younge. Nation Books; 267 pages; $25.99. Guardian Faber; £16.99
The stories of ten young people who were shot and killed on the arbitrarily selected date of Saturday November 23rd 2013. A “long, doleful, piercing cry”, by a journalist on the Guardian, in a country so overwhelmed by gun violence that it has almost given up trying to stop it.
The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives. By Helen Pearson. Soft Skull; 256 pages; $17.95 Penguin; £9.99
How a random, nationwide sample of people linked only by their birth in 1946 has been followed by researchers and data-gatherers, and helped shape public policy across the country. A jewel in the crown of British social science.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. By Christopher de Hamel. Allen Lane; 632 pages; £30
The politics and meaning of medieval manuscripts. A delightful and surprising book, by the man who has examined more manuscripts than anyone before him.
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. By Johan Norberg. Oneworld; 246 pages; $24.99 and £16.99
A Swedish economic historian studies the many, and often surprising, ways in which human life has improved.
The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young. By Somini Sengupta. Norton; 244 pages; $26.95 and £18.99
How India’s youth are trading fatalism and karma for free will and higher expectations, by a former New York Times New Delhi bureau chief who interweaves data, first-hand accounts and archival research to great effect.
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. By Ben Rawlence. Picador; 384 pages; $26. Portobello; £14.99
A chronicle of life in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, which was supposed to close in November, but hasn’t because its inhabitants have nowhere to go.
Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets. By Edward Dusinberre. University of Chicago Press; 232 pages; $30. Faber & Faber; £18.99
The lead violinist of the Takacs Quartet recounts its members’ musical lives, interweaving into the group’s autobiography the story of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets, which are now regarded as the apogee of the chamber-music repertoire.
How to Listen to Jazz. By Ted Gioia. Basic Books; 272 pages; $24.99 and £16.99
Why jazz is unique, and how to distinguish good jazz from bad. No author could have done a better job.
The Vegetarian. By Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith. Hogarth; 192 pages; $21. Portobello; £8.99
This slim novella from South Korea is one of the most erotic literary novels of the season. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International prize.
War and Turpentine. By Stefan Hertmans. Translated by David McKay. Pantheon; 304 pages; $26.95. Harvill Secker; £16.99
A lovingly reimagined life of an ordinary man whose life was for ever marked by the first world war. Fine prose from a Flemish-Belgian poet and essayist.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. By Lionel Shriver. Harper; 400 pages; $27.99. Borough Press; £16.99
A hilarious, and often brutal, tale of how one family fares when America’s economy collapses. In God they trusted. By the irrepressible author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.
Swing Time. By Zadie Smith. Penguin Press; 453 pages; $27. Hamish Hamilton; £18.99
A powerful story of lives marred by secrets, unfulfilled potential and the unjustness of the world. This may well be Zadie Smith’s finest novel.
Science and technology
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. By Ed Yong. Ecco; 368 pages; $27.99. Bodley Head; £20
A science writer and blogger turns an enthusiastic naturalist’s eye on the bacteria, viruses and other minuscule organisms that cohabit the bodies of humans and other animals. Get to know some little-known villains—and many heroes.
The Gene: An Intimate History. By Siddhartha Mukherjee. Scribner; 592 pages; $32. Bodley Head; £25
The world is wholly unprepared for the birth of the first human with a genome that has been permanently modified in a lab. By a Pulitzer-winning writer and physician.
Patient HM: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. By Luke Dittrich. Random House; 440 pages; $28. Chatto & Windus; £18.99
Patient HM became famous in the history of science when a surgeon treated his epilepsy by removing the medial temporal lobes in his brain, causing him to lose most of his memory. A remarkable examination of how neuroscience works, by the surgeon’s grandson.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body. By Jo Marchant. Crown; 320 pages; $26. Canongate; £16.99
A thought-provoking exploration of how the mind affects the body and can be harnessed to help treat physical illness, by an award-winning science journalist.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. By Dava Sobel. Viking; 336 pages; $30. To be published in Britain by Fourth Estate in January 2017
The hidden history of the remarkable women whose contribution to astronomy changed our understanding of the stars and man’s place in the universe, by the prize-winning author of “Longitude” and “Galileo’s Daughter”.