The Best History Books of 2013?

Is two years too soon to call something an “annual holiday tradition”? For our readers who like to give such gifts for Christmas, here’s a list of some of the history books to have appeared on the “Best of 2013” lists that I first examined in a recent post on academic historians achieving success with popular history: the New York Times (NYT) and Publishers Weekly (PW). As usual with these lists, military history and biographies dominate, though there are intriguing examples of social and cultural history as well. And the best of the best seem to transcend genre. (The price is for a paperback — when available — on Amazon.)

Anderson, Lawrence in ArabiaScott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East ($11.35, Doubleday)

“Anderson, a veteran war correspondent and an author of both fiction and nonfiction, gives Lawrence’s story a new spin by contextualizing him in a group biography…. Regardless of the relative historical value of these individuals, however, the multi­character approach has the great virtue of opening up the story’s complexity. Through his large cast, Anderson is able to explore the muddles of the early-20th-century Middle East from several distinct and enlightening perspectives.” (NYT)

Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth ($11.56, Random)

“…a compelling argument for a fresh look at the Nazarene, focusing on how Jesus the man evolved into Jesus the Christ…. Compulsively readable and written at a popular level, this superb work is highly recommended.” (PW)

Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 ($15.41, Holt & Co.)

“…a book that stitches a multitude of such small but telling moments into a tapestry of fabulous richness and complexity. Atkinson is a master of what might be called ‘pointillism history,’ assembling the small dots of pure color into a vivid, tumbling narrative.” (NYT)

Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 ($11.35, Knopf)

“Bailyn’s goal is to show how a jumble of migrants, ‘low and high born,’ sought ‘to recreate, if not to improve, in this remote and, to them, barbarous environment, the life they had known before.’ As the title indicates, the story is as grim as it is fascinating: a group portrait in tones of greed, desperation and brutality. In recent years conservative writers dismayed by historical revisionism have flooded stores with books extolling the character and sagacity of America’s founders. ‘The Barbarous Years’ is not one of them.” (NYT)

Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide ($12.88, Knopf)

“[Bass] has revived the terrible and little-known story of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and of the sordid and disgraceful White House diplomacy that attended it. This is a dark and amazing tale, an essential reminder of the devastation wrought by the hardhearted policy and outright bigotry that typified much of the diplomacy of the cold war.” (NYT)

Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945 ($13.99, Penguin)

“Ian Buruma’s lively new history, ‘Year Zero,’ is about the various ways in which the aftermath of the Good War turned out badly for many people, and splendidly for some who didn’t deserve it…. His survey rambles over a wide expanse of ground, from sexual behavior (imagine millions of Allied occupation troops in a Germany where women outnumbered men by eight to five), to British and American soldiers unintentionally killing thousands of liberated concentration camp inmates by feeding them more than their shriveled intestinal tracts could handle, to the Allies’ blindness to how much of their cornucopia of food and supplies found its way into the hands of Italian, French and Japanese gangsters, restoring some of their prewar power.” (NYT)

Chang, Empress Dowager CixiJung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China ($10.41, Knopf)

“In her absorbing new book, [Chang] laments that Cixi has for so long been ‘deemed either tyrannical and vicious, or hopelessly incompetent — or both.’ Far from depicting her subject as a sinister conservative who obstructed reforms, Chang portrays Cixi as smart, patriotic and open-minded. In her view, the empress was a proto-feminist who, despite the narrow-minded, misogynistic male elite that made up the imperial bureaucracy, ‘brought medieval China into the modern age.'” (NYT)

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 ($14.52, Harper)

“The distinctive achievement of ‘The Sleepwalkers’ is Clark’s single-volume survey of European history leading up to the war. That may sound dull. Quite the contrary. It is as if a light had been turned on a half-darkened stage of shadowy characters cursing among themselves without reason.” (NYT)

Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream ($14.16, Penguin)

“…weaves together the stories of the American artists, styles and ideas that developed in Chicago before and after World War II — the blues, Mies van der Rohe’s Modernist architecture, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie.’ This tragedy, written with greater wit than the insider accounts, contends that by the mid-’50s the American mass market, which flourished here along with big-name brands like McDonald’s and Schwinn, snuffed out Midwestern geniuses with radical roots.” (NYT)

Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code ($13.53, Ecco/HarperCollins)

“In the best detective stories, the mysteries of human character are as compelling as the enigmatic clues, and as central to the plot, which explains why Fox structures her book as a triptych of biographies….Fox doesn’t merely recount the history of Linear B, which has been told before…. She’s out to correct the historical record, by rescuing [classicist Alice] Kober from obscurity and giving her discoveries their due.” (NYT)

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism ($24.00 hardcover, Simon & Schuster)

“Like her last book, ‘Team of Rivals’… [Goodwin’s] new book implicitly invites us to look afresh at our own time…. Goodwin directs her characters with precision and affection, and the story comes together like a well-wrought novel.” (NYT)

Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War ($21.41, Knopf)

“…Hastings does an excellent job of assembling a chronicle of the war’s first few months, from August to December 1914…. He does not break new historiographical ground, but rather skillfully marshals evidence assembled by several generations of scholars into a highly readable narrative that should — but won’t — be the last word on the subject.” (NYT)

Kaplan, Miss Anne in HarlemJacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America ($21.45 hardcover, Basic)

“MacArthur Fellow and Bancroft Prize–winning historian Jones’s aim in this heartfelt book is to redefine our ideas of what constitutes ‘race’ while arguing that the entire foundation of racial categorizing is unscientific and deeply injurious historically.” (PW)

Carla Kaplan, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance ($14.51, Harper)

“A captivating group biography and social history… An empathetic and skillful writer, Kaplan has produced a valuable addition to the history of the period. As she shows, Miss Anne defied categorization, transcending her race, class, and gender, and introducing many of the ideas we hold today about inclusiveness and self-reinvention.” (PW)

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin ($12.88, Knopf)

“…Lepore shows how the lives of the siblings were irrevocably shaped by gender. The brother, a man able to rise from poverty and to become a successful politician, is universally acknowledged to have been a genius. Was his sister one too? We cannot know, because her life was as much determined by her gender identity as was his…” (NYT)

Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 ($22.99 hardcover, Random House)

“One of the strengths of ‘The War That Ended Peace’ is MacMillan’s ability to evoke the world at the beginning of the 20th century, when Europe had gone 85 years without a general war between the great powers…. MacMillan’s portraits of the men who took Europe to war are superb.” (NYT)

Lynne Olson, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 ($12.91, Random House)

“Now that it has become the good war fought by the greatest generation, the ferocity of the disputes over entering World War II has largely been forgotten. But the story of America’s anti-­interventionist lobby is not only historically fascinating, it also echoes in debates today over whether America should engage abroad or hold back…. Olson captures in spellbinding detail the key figures in the battle between the Roosevelt administration and the isolationist movement.” (NYT)

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America ($10.12, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Readers experience three decades of change via the personal histories of an Ohio factory worker, a Washington political operative, a North Carolinian small businessman, and an Internet billionaire…. Packer has a keen eye for the big story in the small moment, writing about our fraying social fabric with talent that matches his dismay.” (PW)

Robb, Discovery of Middle EarthGraham Robb, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts ($21.46 hardcover, Norton)

“…upends nearly everything we believe about the history—or, as [Robb] calls it, ‘protohistory’—of early Europe and its barbarous Celtic tribes and semimythical Druids…. Like the vast and intricate geographical latticework that Robb has uncovered, the book unfurls its secrets in an eerie, magnificent way—a remarkable, mesmerizing, and bottomless work.” (PW)

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City ($20.10 hardcover, Doubleday)

“Amsterdam, to Shorto, was not only the first city in Europe to develop the cultural and political foundations of what we now call liberalism—’a society focused on the concerns and comforts of individuals,… run by individuals acting together,’ and tolerant of ‘religion, ethnicity, or other differences’—but also an exporter of these beliefs to the rest of Europe and the New World.” (PW)

Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life ($23.44 hardcover, Norton/Liveright)

“This superb, readable biography of the most controversial political and economic thinker of the last two centuries achieves what scholars have been hard-pressed to deliver in recent decades: a study of Marx that avoids cold war, ideological, and partisan commitments and arguments.” (PW)

Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 ($14.62, Harper)

“Wineapple gives us history as it feels in real time: full of plans that backfire, schemes foiled by chance, outliers who suddenly change everything and happy endings that turn out to be not too happy after all. And, somehow, the whole untidy situation pushes us toward social progress. ‘Ecstatic Nation’ is not a book with an overt agenda. Its message is delivered through its vivid portrayal of the human side of an era, following the roiling tides of emotions — erratic, shifting and ultimately overpowering.” (NYT)

Cross-posted at AC 2nd

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