The Best History (and Religion) Books of 2012?

It’s late November, which means that newspapers and periodicals are starting to put out their “Best of 2012” lists. Here are the works of scholarly and popular history (and some historical fiction) that have shown up on “Best Books” lists produced by Publishers Weekly (PW), The Washington Post (WP), and Britain’s The Guardian. For each, we’ll include comments from the Best Of list’s editors or contributors, plus — in the democratizing spirit of the digital age — some comments from users.

A version of this was initially posted at our department blog, AC 2nd — at the end of this version I added some books on Christianity that aren’t historical in focus, but are drawing “Best Of” praise from secular media.

Applebaum, Iron CurtainCarolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera (Norton)

“…ingeniously retraverses the form’s development while helping to explain its intense, irresistible emotional power.” (Peter Conrad, Guardian)

Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 (Doubleday)

“A searing narrative and analysis of a historical watershed—the USSR’s brutal takeover of Eastern Europe during and after WWII.” (PW, Top 10 Overall)

“…a compelling work of history and journalism in which we experience how a mostly agricultural Eastern Europe came to look like Stalin’s industrial, atheist Soviet Union.” (WP, Best of 2012)

“Applebaum is not so much polemical as just pained by all that happened; her essential revelation – that Marxist ideology, mad though it seems, really mattered even for the mediocrities who enforced it – is a useful reminder for anyone still inclined to imagine that ideas don’t make history.” (Adam Gopnik, Guardian)

“The sheer size and scope of the book give pause to the casual reader but this is mitigated by the author’s elegant prose and ability for descriptive details.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Knopf)

“The culmination of a distinguished career, this is an original study of America’s colonial era and the link between the universal need for stability and the resulting violence that ravaged both settlers and natives.” (PW, Top 10 Overall)

Anthony Beevor, The Second World War (Little, Brown)

“As we have come to expect from this master, he excels at using eyewitness testimony to illustrate how mankind can be capable of both terrible cruelty and astonishing courage.” (Andrew Rawnsley, Guardian)

“Beevor offers a kaleidoscopic view of WWII, which, he says, was an amalgamation of many wars that he depicts both in closeup views of individual combatants and wide-angle views of battles around the world.” (PW, Best Nonfiction)

“Very few historians are capable of capturing this epic panorama of tragedy and triumph on paper. Happily for us, Antony Beevor is one of those chosen few who can.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Blum & Harvey, The Color of ChristEdward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Univ. of North Carolina Press)

“This model of academic inquiry and analysis is clearly written, deeply researched, socially engaged, ambitious in the intellectual scope of its questions about race and religion, and methodical in its answers.” (PW, Best Religion)

“This book is a must-read for anyone who wants a scholarly but accessible treatment of the complicated relationship of religion and race in the United States.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (Allen Lane)

“…a fascinating look at the 18th-century sexual revolution….my favourite sort of history book, where detailed primary research is wrapped in fine prose and an effortless sense of narrative.” (William Dalrymple, Guardian)

“Dabhoiwala has done a lot of research from laws, court cases, novels, pornography, history, paintings and diaries and letters, that illustrate the changing opinions on sexuality.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

James G. Hershberg, Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam (Stanford Univ. Press)

“…a staggering exercise in historical scholarship, the definitive study of a subject of intense speculation over the years — proposed U.S.-Hanoi negotiations in 1966.” (WP, Best of 2012)

“…a long, mostly well written book on an attempt at 1966 by various international diplomats to broker direct talks between the US and Vietnam.” (Amazon customer review, 3 stars)

Shirley Hughes, Hero on a Bicycle (Candlewick)

“Shirley Hughes’s first novel, for kids… about the second world war in Italy, is citrus-oil stinging and bright.” (Caitlin Moran, Guardian)

Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings Who Made England (HarperCollins)

“…narrative history told with pace, wit and scholarship about the bloody dynasty that produced some of England’s most brilliant, brutal kings.” (Andrew Rawnsley, Guardian)

“The Plantagenets and their Queens sweep through history, not a dull one to be found….an informative, entertaining, fast moving book you will not want to put down.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Claude Lanzmann, The Patagonian Hare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Best-known for his 9.5-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, Lanzmann’s first book—dictated at the age of 84—is an impas-sioned and stirring memoir, wherein the acclaimed director ruminates personally and historically on some of the 20th century’s most important events and figures.” (PW, Best Nonfiction)

“This is the story of one of those rare individuals who seems to live in one life many lives, and each of them remarkable.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown)

“The enthralling account of a young Spaniard who became England’s most improbable double agent and helped the Allies win WWII.” (PW, Best Nonfiction)

“…a triumph.” (Alexander McCall Smith, Guardian)

“Macintyre’s many anecdotes make for riveting reading and often caused me to laugh aloud….” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Mantel, Bring Up the BodiesHilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Holt & Co.)

“This darkly magnificent sequel [to Wolf Hall] covers Thomas Cromwell’s brutal efforts to end the failing marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.” (WP, Best of 2012)

“The style, the tight plotting, the characterizations, and Mantel’s ability to capture England itself and the mundane details of 16th century English life, are without parallel.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Andrew Miller, Pure (Europa)

“In his Costa Prize–winning novel, Miller has fun with the history of Les Innocents, a cemetery fouling the center of Paris. The book begins on the eve of the French Revolution as Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an ambitious engineer, is hired to get rid of the site casting a deathly pall over the city. ‘The place is to be made sweet again,’ says a minister, with the dead disposed of, down to the ‘last knucklebone.'” (PW, Best Fiction)

“Ultimately, Miller succeeds in making this unlikely subject and its unusual characters both engaging and thought-provoking, requiring the reader to think beyond the limitations of most stories which are set so deep in the past.” (Amazon customer review, 4.5 stars)

Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“…a superb history of Asia.” (Mohsin Hamid, Guardian)

“If you want to truly understand why the world is in its current state this book is essential. It will forever change your understanding of history and of your country’s place in the world. A great work of history.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Robert Sullivan, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“…a nostalgic, witty, and always informative topographic retrospective of the sites pertinent to the American Revolution throughout the Middle Colonies, especially New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.” (PW, Best Nonfiction)

“Sullivan has a keen eye for characters, eccentrics and otherwise, who he help him on his journeys and move his story along….” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Kate Summerscale, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (Bloomsbury)

“…an exquisite cameo of a book, which tells you everything you need to know about Victorians and marriage.” (Rachel Cooke, Guardian)

“This book looks not only at Isabella’s tragic downfall and disgrace, but looks at the way women in Victorian England were at the mercy of their husbands in marriage and the concern changing divorce laws had on the nation. Excellent book, which I thoroughly enjoyed and, although Isabella is often critical of herself, you feel a great deal of sympathy for her plight and her obvious desire to love and be loved.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Alec Wilkinson, The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration (Knopf)

“Spurred by an eerie photo of an enormous balloon downed in a wilderness of white, flanked by two marooned figures, Wilkinson… details S.A. Andrée’s doomed 1897 bid for the North Pole via hydrogen balloon.” (PW, Best Nonfiction)

“Wilkinson does that thing only the best artists can: makes you see your own world again, as if for the first time.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Then a few books on Christianity that I didn’t include in the original AC 2nd post on history but might interest my readers…

Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (T&T Clark)

“…beautifully illuminates the exacting theology of the departing Archbishop of Canterbury.” (Colin Thubron, Guardian)

Pagels, RevelationsElaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking)

“An academic in command of her field of early Christian studies and also of clear, nonacademic prose offers wise analysis of a puzzling biblical text that has prompted many a fevered preacher to pencil the end times onto a calendar.” (PW, Best Religion)

“Although Pagels does not delve deeply into the vision and drama of the text of Revelations, she is is able to convey how the apocalyptic imagery of the book served to inspire physical and mental resistance to Roman persecution.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne)

“Loss and failure season a life and challenge a faith. Winner’s meditative writing is sadder, wiser, and more beautiful than before.” (PW, Best Religion)

“…mostly, it is about God, and it is about one of those rare authors who is willing to sacrifice her own ego to bring herself, and her readers, closer to finding their own way to God.” (Amazon customer review, 5 stars)

See my two posts on Still from this summer: one on Winner’s abilities as a writer; the other on Winner’s metaphor for the church.

Read the sequel to this post, listing History book on the N.Y. Times’ best/notable lists>>

One thought on “The Best History (and Religion) Books of 2012?

  1. I am most likely to read The Color of Christ. I have been reading Paul Harvey’s Religion in American History blog for several years now. He also inspired me to write my Religion in Family History series of posts.

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