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Best Nonfiction of 2012

1st January 2013

The Wall Street Journal has released a list of the best nonfictional works of the year.

In no particular order, the first book on the list is the Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum. Having initially written about the Soviet prison camps, her new book goes back to the beginning, looking at how the Soviet Union imposed their totalitarian regime. A.N. Wilson from The Financial Times has described the book as ‘the best work of modern history I have ever read’.

Next on the list is The Endgame by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. The book is a narrative account of the Iraq war, in which the writers had access to classified documents and the highest levels of military command. Critics have said that the book is ‘likely to stand for decades as the definitive account of the Iraq War’.

Also featuring is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, the man who created great debate with his accurate electoral predictions. His book looks at the principles of prophesising future events in a range of fields such as sports and the weather in an accessible way. The Washington Post said of the book that ‘Silver delivers an improbably breezy read on what is essentially a primer on making predictions.’

The Wives by Alexandra Popoff features next tells the story of Russian history and literature through the wives of the literary giants Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The New Republic has called the book, ‘captivating’, whilst the Wall Street Journal reviewer has written that the book, ‘buzzes with both literary insight and gossipy intrigue.’

Next up is A Man and his Ship by Steven Ujifusa. The book tells the story of the great American master builder of the ocean liner, William Francis Gibbs. His greatest ship, the SS United States is at the heart of the book, a topic of national fascination and hailed as the technological masterpiece of its time. Critics have said of the book that it is, ‘written with passion and thoroughness, this is a love letter to a bygone time and the ships that once ruled the seas’.

The Founders and Finance by Thomas McCraw is next on the list, telling the story of the three immigrants, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, who solved the fiscal crisis, setting the U.S. on the right path to long term economic success. The beauty of this book, critics have said, is that it has, ‘hit on something new’.

The next book to feature on the list is The Astaires by Kathleen Riley. This book looks at the relationship between Fred and his sister Adele, who was the real star until she retired from the stage in 1932. It also gives a portrait of the theatrical American art forms of Broadway and the Hollywood musical. This cultural biography has been described by critics as, ‘a page turner of a biography, briskly written and immaculately researched.’

Sincerity by R. Jay Magill Junior also appears on this list. In his book, Magill takes a cultural look at the idea of sincerity and how our search for straight talking politicians and real authenticity is really a desire for this deeper issue of sincerity. As critics have stated, the book is ‘an illumination of the shifting attitudes and ambivalence toward a value that society claims to hold in high esteem....Sincerity proves to be a richer topic than readers might initially suspect.’

Another book featuring on the list is Connectcome by Sebastian Seung. This book delves much deeper into the topic of neuroscience than any other and describes a new approach aiming to show precisely how neurons connect to each other. Seung shows that our likes and dislikes are as much to do with the wiring of our brains as they are to do with our genes. The book has been described by one Wall Street Journal critic as, ‘the best lay book on brain science I’ve ever read.’

The final book on the list is The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Rian Malan. This is the follow up to his book detailing what it was like to be anti-apartheid in Africa, My Traitor’s Heart. In this book, Malan details the blacks and whites trying to build a new country, accounting the first rock band to hit South Africa and looking at Africa’s AIDS industry. A reviewer for The New York Times has said of the book, ‘Malan is bent on uncovering another level altogether of South African life, and he does so beautifully…He sharply expands our understanding of his strange, strange country’s complexities.’

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