The Top Histories of 2015?

It’s December 1st, time to share our annual round-up of historical works that have cracked various “Best Books of 2015” lists, for any reader who might be looking for gifts for the history buff in their life.

(Key: G = The Guardian; NYT = New York Times; PW = Publishers Weekly; WP = Washington Post

Beard, SPQRPhilip Ball, Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (University of Chicago Press)
“…a lively history of the lure of the notion of invisibility in science, art and popular culture” (G); “Invisibility as a concept has a longer, stranger history than most would imagine, and Ball follows its twists and turns as he grapples with the philosophical and practical notions of the invisible” (PW)

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright)
“…Beard’s wonderfully concise history unpacks the secrets of the city’s success” (NYT); “…This history’s greatest achieve­ment is per­haps the case Beard makes for Rome’s importance to us, now, while eschewing simplistic correlatives….” (G)

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf)
“…shows how every stage of the industrialization of cotton rested on ­violence” (NYT)

Ari Berman, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“…should be a primer for every American…” (WP); “…engrossing narrative history of voting rights since 1965…” (NYT)

Anna Bikont, The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne, trans. Alissa Valles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“…builds from a forensic dissection of com­peting truths into a compelling piece of living history…” (G); “A beautifully written and devastating reconstruction of mass murder and its ­denial” (NYT)

Philipp Blom, Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938 (Basic Books)
“Fashion, fascists, and futurism vie for attention as Blom investigates how individuals and societies in the West dealt with the collapse in values caused by WWI—with warnings for our current era” (PW)

Faderman, The Gay RevolutionDan Ephron, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel (Norton)
“…an electrifying narrative…” (NYT); “…carefully reported, clearly presented and gripping” (WP)

Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (Simon & Schuster)
“…compulsively readable, carefully anchored in the historical record, overflowing with riveting stories and thoughtful analysis…” (WP); “The progress of gay rights, vividly described” (NYT)

Roy Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (W.W. Norton)
“…paints a splendid group portrait of the men and women whose aspirations, and fantasies, led to the Easter Rising of 1916” (G)

Ivan Maisky, The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, 1932-1943, ed. Gabriel Gorodetsky (Yale University Press)
“The giant is Churchill, whom we see from an entirely new and revealing viewpoint: that of the Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky” (G)

David E. Hoffman, The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal (Doubleday)
“…hits the sweet spot between page-turning thriller and solidly researched history and then becomes something more, a shrewd character study of spies and the spies who run them” (WP)

Larson, Dead WakeDavid Kynaston, Modernity Britain, 1957-62 (Bloomsbury)
“Kynaston’s brilliant multivolume postwar history continues in this tapestry of social, political and economic change” (NYT)

Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown)
“…Larson’s enthralling and richly detailed account of the 1915 sinking demonstrates there was far more going on beneath the surface than is generally known” (WP)

Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy (Da Capo)
“…takes your breath away with the sheer scale and fury of the man’s conquests and cruelties. Told with chilling relish” (G)

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures (Palgrave Macmillan)
“As  entertaining as it is eye-opening…” (WP)

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World (Princeton University Press)
“How capitalism, socialism, evolution and liberal democracy broke decisively with the past” (NYT)

Peter Moore, The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“Unlike many British-centric meteorological histories, Moore’s evocative account pays homage to American contributions” (NYT)

Janice P. Nimura, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back (Norton)
“In 1871, three clueless Japanese girls were sent to America, to learn how to educate their countrywomen in modern ways” (NYT)

Michael Pye, The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe (Pegasus)
“…succeeds in reorienting our thinking about the past” (NYT)

Snyder, Black EarthStacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown)
“Schiff’s contribution to the familiar story of the Salem witch trials is her penetrating evocation of the environment that engendered them…” (WP)

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Tim Duggan)
“Snyder responds to critics of 2010’s Bloodlands with a detailed analysis of how the collapse—rather than the excess—of Central and Eastern European nation-state power (instigated by both the Nazis and Soviets) led to the Holocaust” (PW); “Hitler’s ideology is essential for understanding Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews, Timothy Snyder explains” (WP)

Susan Southard, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War (Viking)
“Susan Southard’s riveting book tells five survivor’s stories from the U.S. bombing of Nagaski…” (WP)

Nicholas Stargardt, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (Basic Books)
“…an immense social history that uses the diaries and letters from ordinary Germans, weaving a narrative that alternates from a love of Shakespeare, the horrors of the eastern front and love affairs, to minute accounts of complicity in the euthanasia programme of the disabled to the Holocaust” (G); “A dramatic look at the lives of ordinary German men and women during World War II” (NYT)

Melvin I. Urofsky, Dissent and the Supreme Court: Its Role in the Court’s History and the Nation’s Constitutional Dialogue (Pantheon)
“A great legal historian masterfully takes up the topic of dissent…” (WP)

Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal, trans. Ruth Martin (Knopf)
“Wolf, a scholar of great integrity, resists the temptation to sensationalize as he reconstructs the story…” (WP)

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf)
“Though his name is scattered across the geography of the Americas and his ideas are now commonplace… Humboldt (1769–1859) is a nearly forgotten figure. Wulf restores the man who first posited the concept of human-induced climate change” (PW); “…a highly readable account of the German scientist’s monumental journey in the Americas” (NYT)


2 thoughts on “The Top Histories of 2015?

    1. I’ve had it for a while, Rusty, but only read a couple of chapters connected to an adult Sunday School class I was teaching. My first impressions were positive: the religious dimension of the war is often overlooked, and I appreciate that Jenkins (predictably) looked beyond Europe. (Africa and the Middle East, especially.)

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