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December 2, 2007
Book World's Holiday Issue

We pick the best books of 2007, the ones that will keep you turning pages all winter long.

Excerpts from the 100 most favorable nonfiction reviews of the year.


Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James (Norton). Possesses the magic touch for knocking usurpers like Sartre off their pedestals. The warts are few, the all is absorbing. - John Simon

Dark Victory, by Ed Sikov (Henry Holt). A refreshingly unsentimental and unapologetic biography of Bette Davis. - Charles Matthews

The House That George Built, by Wilfrid Sheed (RH). Emphasizes Gershwin's singular generosity to other composers and musicians and eloquently defends him against his highbrow critics. - JY

Lost Genius, by Kevin Bazzana (C&G). Even if your interest in classical music is elementary or - shame on you - merely perfunctory, the book offers elegance and fun. -MD

The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross (FSG). The best general study of the complex history of 20th century music. Itis an impressive, invigorating achievement. - Stephen Walsh

The Shakespeare Riots, by Nigel Cliff (RH). In 1849, more than 10,000 New Yorkers faced off against city police outside the Astor Place Opera House. The flashpoint of the riot was Shakespeare. Cliff turns this most improbable episode of history into a lively and compelling drama. - Daniel Stashower

The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman (Knopf). A superb biography of a man who early on recognized that literature and the fine arts donit need only creative spirits, they also need champions. - MD


Alexis de Tocqueville, by Hugh Brogan (Yale). Broganis achievement here is monumental. He wears his learning lightly, and the analysis conveys a distilled wisdom that is blessedly bereft of academic jargon. - Joseph J. Ellis

Amerigo, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Random House). The fascinating tale of Amerigo Vespucci, a small-time Florentine trader with a talent for self-promotion, told with verve and skill. - Mary Hollingsworth

Boone, by Robert Morgan (Algonquin). Though there have been many biographies of Daniel Boone, the thoroughness and authority of this one are beyond dispute. - JY

Calvin Coolidge, by David Greenberg (Times). Argues that Coolidge was kind of a proto-Reagan. A brisk, engaging volume. - H.W. Brands

The Diana Chronicles, by Tina Brown (Doubleday). Brown is no Shakespeare, but she gives us a walloping good read. - Diana McLellan

Einstein, by Jurgen Neffe, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch (FSG). This biographer's zingy, dramatic style sometimes calls to mind the New Yorkeris John McPhee. - Michael Dirda

Gerald R. Ford, by Douglas Brinkley (Times). A highly sympathetic but largely accurate appraisal of Fordis accomplishments. - David Broder

Gertrude Bell, by Georgina Howell (FSG). The author's wide-eyed admiration is, for the most part, infectious. A gripping read. - Jason Goodwin

Grand Avenues, by Scott W. Berg (Pantheon). The life of LiEnfant in a lively, thorough, fair-minded accounting. - Benjamin Forgey

Ike, by Michael Korda (HC). A valentine to "an American hero" - a fresh, engaging characterization. - John Whiteclay Chambers II

The Lost World of James Smithson, by Heather Ewing (Bloomsbury). Who, exactly, was this British scientist who bequeathed to the United States - a country he had never seen - the bulk of his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution? A superb book. - JY

Marco Polo, by Laurence Bergreen (Knopf). A full-blooded rendition of Polo's astonishing journey. Richly researched and vividly conveyed. - Colin Thubron

Nature's Engraver, by Jenny Uglow (FSG). Not only an example of felicitous scholarship but also an introduction to the work of Thomas Bewick, a superb artist and enviable man. - MD

Return to Dragon Mountain, by Jonathan D. Spence (Viking). Draws on documents, research by other scholars and his deep knowledge of Ming culture to portray the inner universe of a 17th-century historian. - Judith Shapiro

Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin (Penguin). She brings to the task the skills of an experienced and accomplished biographer - and the confidence of a deeply informed literary critic. - JY

Toussaint Louverture, by Madison Smartt Bell (Pantheon). An important recounting of a little-known piece of history. - Theola Labbe

Two Lives, by Janet Malcolm (Yale). A lucid and elegant meditation on literature and morality, built around the disquieting fact that Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, both Jewish, remained in Europe throughout World War II without either hiding or being swept up in the Holocaust. - Meryle Secrest

Culture and Society

F5, by Mark Levine (Hyperion). When it comes to conveying the crushing human toll of an American tornado, Levine has few peers. - Gary Krist

The Feminine Mistake, by Leslie Bennetts (Voice). If mothers continue to leave their jobs, instead of forcing employers to address families, no solution will be found. A ferocious analysis. - RHS

The N Word, by Jabari Asim (HM). A brilliant and bracing history lesson for the countless pundits debating the virtues of black popular culture. - Peniel E. Joseph

Opening Day, by Jonathan Eig (S&S). Sensitively portrays Jackie Robinson's courage as he opened America's eyes to racial equality. - Matt Schudel

Other Colors, by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Knopf). Beyond its clever charm and wise observations, it is a plea to stand back and consider the historical and psychological causes of todayis alarming headlines. - Roger Kaplan

Something in the Air, by Marc Fisher (RH). Entertainingly retells the frenetic history of radio in America. - Douglas Brinkley

The Toothpick, by Henry Petroski (Knopf). Offers rare insights into principles of engineering and design, as well as the oddly inspiring story of one manis quixotic mission. - Joshua Glenn

Virgin, by Hanne Blank (Bloomsbury). Closes in fiercely on the current abstention crusade. A passionate polemic, brimming with a genuine spirit of emancipatory activism. - Marina Warner

When She was White, by Judith Stone (Miramax). Sandra Laing, the gentle, brown-skinned woman at the heart of this riveting new book, grew up afflicted with the cultural dislocation often experienced by mixed-race people - even though both her parents were white. - Rebecca Walker

Current Events

American Islam, by Paul M. Barrett (Farrar Straus Giroux). Seeks to change perceptions by providing an intimate group portrait of Muslim Americans as they struggle to combat the threats, prejudices and stereotypes that have dogged them since 9/11. - Reza Aslan

Are We Rome?, by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin). A fascinating comparison of America and Rome. He draws four lessons for America. - Joseph S. Nye Jr.

At the Center of the Storm, by George Tenet with Bill Harlow (HarperCollins). A remarkable, important and often unintentionally damning memoir. - Bob Woodward

The Idea That is America, by Anne-Marie Slaughter (Basic). We can tell the story that "all men are created equal" or the story of a constitution that treated slaves as three-fifths of a person. In this thoughtful, well-written book, both stories may be true. - Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Merchant of Death, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun (Wiley). A riveting investigation of the world's most notorious weapons dealer. - Fawaz A. Gerges

Reality Show, by Howard Kurtz (Free). Takes you inside the minds and the newsrooms of the three major evening news anchors during a time of political crisis at home and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. A fascinating, richly detailed story. - Marvin Kalb

Supreme Conflict, by Jan Crawford Greenburg (Penguin). Choice details about the Supreme Court's inner workings. - Emily Bazelon

Takeover, by Charlie Savage (LB). In his illuminating and biting new book, Savage shows how Dick Cheney has emerged as Bushis Richelieu, the most powerful vice president in history. - James Bamford

Foreign Affairs

The Blair Years, by Alastair Campbell (Knopf). By turns arrogant, brilliant, combative, demotic and emotional, Campbell delivers an earthy account of life in Tony Blair's government. - Martin Kettle

The China Fantasy, by James Mann (Viking). This angry, lively little book targets policymakers who have dispensed dangerously misleading nostrums about China. - Margaret MacMillan

Deception, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark (Walker). Takes the reader deep inside Abdul Qadeer Khanis nuclear weapons operations in Pakistan. - Douglas Farah

The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone, by Shashi Tharoor (Arcade). Distinguished by impressive learning, witty erudition and irrepressible passion for modern India. A total immersion course. - Alex von Tunzelmann

India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha (Ecco). Guha has given democratic India the rich, well-paced history it deserves. - George Perkovich

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press). How many women with her experience of radical Islam have emerged to tell their stories? And how many can do so with such clarity and insight? - Anne Applebaum

The Occupation of Iraq, by Ali A. Allawi (Yale). Packed with fascinating details. His insider account adds a valuable new voice to the ongoing debate. - Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Once Upon a Country, by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David (FSG). A Palestinian philosopheris magnificent study of hope under siege. - Robert Malley

The Siege of Mecca, by Yaroslav Trofimov (Doubleday). A reporter pierces Saudi secrecy about a seminal event in the evolution of radical Islam.- Thomas W. Lippman


Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintyre (Harmony). The amazing but true story of a professional criminal who became a highly effective double agent during World War II. - Patrick Anderson

Almost a Miracle, by John Ferling (Oxford). A comprehensive and engaging new history of the American Revolution. - Jon Meacham

American Creation, by Joseph J. Ellis (Knopf). Gives the founders their full due but insists that they made serious mistakes. - Jonathan Yardley

The Art of Political Murder, by Francisco Goldman (Grove). A painstakingly researched account of the assassination of a Guatemalan bishop. A passionate cry of outrage. - Pamela Constable

The Boys from Dolores, by Patrick Symmes (Pantheon). Symmes's interviews form a priceless archive of the Cuban diaspora. - Wendy Gimbel

Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson (Holt). A monumental history of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, the second in his planned trilogy of the U.S. Army at war in Europe. - Robert Killebrew

Dry Manhattan, by Michael A. Lerner (Harvard). Exceptionally interesting. Lerner accurately observes that Prohibition was the most ambitious attempt to legislate morality and personal behavior in the history of the modern United States. - JY

The Greatest Battle, by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster). A fine diplomatic and military history, but its real triumph is in the voices of the survivors of the Battle of Moscow. - Constantine Pleshakov

Indian Summer, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Holt). Explores the eccentricities and peccadilloes of the subcontinent's last British rulers and first democratic leaders. - Joanne Collings

Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner (Doubleday). He paints a devastating portrait of the CIA as an agency run, during the height of its power, by Ivy League incompetents. Must reading. - David Wise

Medical Apartheid, by Harriet A. Washington (Doubleday). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study remains an ignominious milestone in the intertwined histories of race and medical science in U.S. society. A courageous and poignant book. - Alondra Nelson

Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds, by Gregory Rodriguez (Pantheon). A fascinating excursion through the history of Mexican immigrants in the United States. - Pamela Constable

The Most Noble Adventure, by Greg Behrman (Free). Meticulously researched. Behrman vividly describes many of the larger-than-life individuals who converged to design and execute the Marshall Plan. - Moises Naim

Nixon and Mao, by Margaret MacMillan (RH). MacMillan, who has availed herself of some valuable new interviews, narrates the history beautifully. - Orville Schell

Paris, by Andrew Hussey (Bloomsbury). A breathless race across more than 2,000 years of massacres, revolutions, insurrections, riots, wars, beheadings, plagues and poverty. The rat's-eye view. - Molly Moore

Power, Faith, and Fantasy, by Michael B. Oren (Norton). Fascinating and beautifully written stories about individual Americans over the past four centuries and their contact with Middle Eastern cultures. - Robert Kagan

The Road to Disunion, by William W. Freehling (Oxford). The second and concluding volume of Freehling's splendid, painstaking account of the setting of the stage for the Civil War. - Jon Meacham

Sacco & Vanzetti, by Bruce Watson (Viking). The literature of the case is vast, but surprisingly little of it provides as balanced and unemotional a survey as this volume does. - JY

Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas (S&S). Tells the story of the Japanese and American commanders whose fates converged in historyis last great naval engagement. Provides one of the most insightful analyses written of personalities and military cultures at war. - Wesley K. Clark

This Mighty Scourge, by James M. McPherson (Oxford). A bracing new collection of essays from a great Civil War historian. - JY

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, by Woody Holton (Hill & Wang). This lively, provocative book disputes the idea that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to protect civil liberties. They wanted, he says, to make the United States more attractive to investors. - Pauline Maier

West from Appomattox, by Heather Cox Richardson (Yale). Argues that the years after the Civil War saw nothing less than the reconstruction of America, a recasting of the relationship between the government and the people. Engaging and reveals much that is fresh. - Edward L. Ayers

What Hath God Wrought, by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford). The period between the end of the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War in 1848 is one of the most important in American history. Howe brings an impressive array of strengths to the daunting task of encapsulating these decades in a single volume. - JY


Classics for Pleasure, by Michael Dirda (Harcourt). Dirda writes brilliantly, concisely and even convincingly. But he has a distinct agenda in mind, which is to subvert the istandardi definition of the classics. - Michael Korda

Portraits and Observations, (RH). A wonderful volume on several counts. It contains all of Truman Capote's nonfiction, itis of a handy size, and nearly every page can be read with real pleasure. - MD


Bay of Spirits, (by Farley Mowat (Carroll & Graf). A deeply felt love song to his life's companion and the happiness he sought. A lovely book. - JY

Body of Work, by Christine Montross (Penguin Press). An exceptionally thoughtful memoir about the first semester of medical school. - Rachel Hartigan Shea

Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf). A powerful memoir. Danticat observes firsthand the continuing political and social turmoil of her native country, Haiti. - Bliss Broyard

The Grand Surprise, edited by Stephen Pascal (Knopf). The journals of Leo Lerman are a compulsively readable storehouse of outrageous anecdote and sexual revelation. - MD

Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup (Little, Brown). A superbly crafted memoir of love, loss, hope and the complex subtleties of faith. - Jane Ciabattari

Journals, 1952-2000, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (Penguin). Edited by his sons, it offers us vivid insights into the highest levels of American political, cultural, literary, journalistic and academic life in the second half of the 20th century. - Jon Meacham

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, by Rupert Everett (Warner). Displays a feel for language and anecdote that is inconceivable in an American actor of comparable education. A scabrously witty chronicle. - Louis Bayard

Shoot the Widow, by Meryle Secrest (Knopf). In this engaging account, Secrest reveals that her most important tools are not sleuthing and spycraft but tact and sympathy. - Julie Phillips

Warm Springs, by Susan Richards Shreve (HM). When she was 1 1/2, Shreve had poliomyelitis. When she was 4, she came down with rheumatic fever. A year or so later, she had spinal meningitis and lay in a coma. An extremely intense memoir. - Carolyn See


Reading Judas, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King (Viking). In their slim but excellent book, the authors rightly focus on the Gospel of Judas's ancient and provocative theology rather than on the codexis modern and tortured history. - John Dominic Crossan

Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero (HarperSF). Combines a lively history of the rise and fall of American religious literacy with a set of proposed remedies. Provocative and timely. - Susan Jacoby

Science and Medicine

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (RH). A captivating exploration of the brain's uncanny ability to map the world. - Wray Herbert

Cheating Destiny, by James S. Hirsch (Houghton Mifflin). Hirsch has written the book that people who care about diabetes have been waiting for. - Sara Sklaroff

Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks (Knopf). The intersection of music and neurology. The ideal guide to the territory. - Peter D. Kramer

Passions and Tempers, by Noga Arikha (Ecco). Though the humoural theory of health and temperament provides the connecting thread of this history, it is also, by its nature, an overview of Western medicine. - MD

Vaccine, by Arthur Allen (Norton). With genuine panache, Allen describes the "the mind-boggling array of political and religious forces against child vaccination." - Laurie Garrett


Shadow of the Silk Road, by Colin Thubron (HC). Arrives just as the reality of a shrunken globe has become inescapable. As much a history lesson as a contemporary adventure. A splendid book. - JY

Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska (Knopf). A work of art so eloquent, so simple, that you find yourself marveling at its gentle observation and the rhythm of the words. - Tahir Shah

Wild, by Jay Griffiths (Tarcher/Penguin). Records a long journey into wilderness and out of depression. A seven-year quest from rain forest and desert to ocean and ice. - Ruth Padel

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