The Top Histories of 2016?

‘Tis the season when we curate some of the histories and biographies showing up on Best Books of 2016 lists, just in case you’re struggling to come up with a gift for that history buff in your life.

(Key: A – Amazon; G – Guardian; NYT – New York Times; PW – Publishers Weekly)

Alexievich, Secondhand TimeSvetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

“[Alexievich] demonstrates great skill and care in documenting real human lives as the Soviet Union reached its end and newly independent states struggled into being. Hardship permeates this largely bleak work, but it’s a necessary confrontation with brutal realities.” (PW)

Tyler Anbinder, City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York

“A richly textured guide to the past of the nation’s chief immigrant city.” (NYT)

David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949

“…a daring act of revisionism. The author’s own exemplary contribution to the world of Holocaust memorialisation gives force to his argument that commemoration is not the best route to understanding such a complex, multifaceted event.” (G)

Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After

“The long-awaited conclusion of a monumental and inspirational biography.” (NYT)

Peter Cozzens, The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West

“…a story of survival, one that unfolds under the shadow of a predetermined tragedy. If you’re at all interested in the Indian Wars, this scrupulous and even-handed account is essential reading.” (A)

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

“Duneier skillfully traces the origins of the ghetto from its Renaissance beginnings to its modern manifestations, noting the changes in how it was defined, who got to define it, and who benefited from its existence. A product of public policy rather than natural settlement, the ghetto has symbolized communitarian resistance, systemic racism, and political failure. It is also, for many, home.” (PW)

Fritzsche, Iron WindPeter Fritzsche, An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler

“A deep reflection about World War II’s moral challenges for civilians.” (NYT)

Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War

“An economic historian’s magisterial assessment of the past and future of American living standards.” (NYT)

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

“In her thorough and engaging book, [Isenberg] concludes that our origin myths obscure class division, and our inability (or unwillingness) to broach the topic undermines wider discussions of race, colonization, exploitation, and public policy.” (PW)

Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

“It should come as no surprise that Winston Churchill was an ambitious, young go-getter long before he became Sir Winston Churchill—but you might be surprised by how interesting his young life was…. Millard puts her narrative gifts to work as she describes his harrowing escape, setting the man in his time, and illustrating the man to describe his times.” (A)

Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (due April 2017 in USA)

“…for his description of the effects of drug consumption on the course of blitzkrieg alone, the book is well worth reading, even if with a sceptical eye.” (G)

Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

“Philbrick’s eye for the illuminating detail and his clear writing keeps the story taut, unlike many history books that too often overwhelm the reader with a sludge of see-I-did-my-research prose. Riveting and relevant, Valiant Ambition explodes the myth that a triumphant revolution was inevitable.” (A)

Phillips, Blood at the RootPatrick Phillips, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

“Phillips employs his considerable writing skills to chronicle how whites expelled the African-American population of Forsyth County, Ga., and through systematic terror kept the county whites-only for three-quarters of the 20th century.” (PW)

Kate Summerscale, The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

“Summerscale bolsters her reputation as a master of historical true crime with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit more than a whodunit.” (PW)

Robert Tombs, The English and Their History

“A Cambridge historian’s clearsighted retelling of English history also analyzes how the English themselves have viewed their past.” (NYT)

Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

“A deeply researched and thought-provoking examination of the role of single women throughout history.” (NYT)

Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939

“The first volume of a timely new biography focuses on Hitler the man, seeing him as a consummate tactician and an actor aware of his audience.” (NYT)

Warren, New England BoundWendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

“Warren enlivens her study of Northern slavery with new research and a fresh approach” (NYT)

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

“Serious, exhaustive, and likely definitive, American Ulysses is a tricky meld of comprehensive research and readable narrative, worthy of the pantheon of monumental presidential biographies.” (A)

Jon Wilson, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire

“…a forceful reminder that Britain has its own messy past to come to terms with. Wilson junks any notion of a ‘civilising mission’ early, but another casualty of his account is an impression of the Raj as a ‘stable and authoritative regime'” (G)

Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS

“A longtime foreign correspondent traces the Arab Spring through five countries—Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia—from the heady idealism of 2011 to the largely grim aftermath. Worth does so through the stories of individuals rather than groups or sects, skillfully presenting the competing perspectives in play and showing no easy path forward” (PW)

* * * * *

As usual, these end-0f-year lists tend to be light on histories of religion, so let me add John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Societywhich Scot McKnight named today as his church history book of the year at Jesus Creed.

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