The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine is an enormous book, like an encyclopedia, containing superb maps and illustrations and with essays by the best modern scholars on all aspects of the disaster that shaped modern Ireland.
The Arriére-Pays, by the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (in a wonderful translation by Stephen Romer), is a prose meditation on the idea of place and dream-place, on choices and chances, on language and the self and, indeed, the soul. It is work of extraordinary seriousness, density and beauty.
Canada, by Richard Ford, has a depth of feeling in the rhythms of the prose and the way in which both characters and events are plotted that makes the book stay in your mind as a sort of living, glittering entity. John Lanchester’s Capital is filled with a sense of contemporary London as a place in which money moves likes a poisonous plant, choking whole streets and communities.
Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel is The Testament of Mary.
Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War is a stunning book. It’s the first comprehensive English-language history of the “first” Vietnam War, which raged from 1946, when France tried to reclaim its Southeast Asian colonies, to 1954, when the Viet Minh guerrilla army defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. As such, it’s a supremely valuable resource for historians. But even more, it’s an absolutely gripping account of France’s political and military mistakes in Vietnam – and how the United States repeated them.
My other history book of the year, Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, also takes us right up to the brink of America’s war in Vietnam. This is the fourth of a projected five-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine anyone topping this achievement in historical writing. Half of the book covers Johnson’s time in political purgatory – otherwise known as the vice presidency – and half examines the assassination of JFK and LBJ’s transition to president. Caro is such a gifted storyteller that putting The Passage of Power down is much more difficult than picking it up. But aside from being an absorbing read, it has countless brilliant insights into American politics and human nature.
Andrew Preston’s most recent book is Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.
LEAH HAGER COHEN
For all the wonderful books that have been published in 2012 – and by any account, it has been a banner year – I find myself treasuring above all the idea of the homely, humble book you construct yourself. A book can be almost anything. It can be a piece of paper you pleat like a fan with a single word written on every page. It can be an out-of-date guide book salvaged from the trash, remade by pasting into it images and passages snipped from old magazines. It can be a stack of lottery tickets and theatre tickets and numbered tickets from the meat counter at the store, hole-punched and gathered on a key ring. It can be three autumn leaves tied together with a piece of blue thread.
Ten years ago, my mother made a tiny book for each person in our family, with a single page for every year up until 2012. Each New Year’s Eve we’ve recorded in them brief memories of the previous year, pausing to read aloud, often with laughter or wonder, things we’d written in years gone by. This December 31 we will fill in the final pages of our little books. Then perhaps we’ll make some new ones.
Leah Hager Cohen’s most reecent book is the novel The Grief of Others. She writes the blog Love as a Found Object.
I’m preparing myself for the tidal wave of First World War books, as the centenary of the outbreak of that brutal conflict approaches in 2014. Military strategy doesn’t engage me, but compelling social and political history does. Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars brings to life events in the trenches and in Britain. I loved the way Hochschild paid attention to cultural shifts, and the power of protest. In Canada, the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge has become a cliché as our “coming of age.” Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada’s World Wars is the latest tour-de-force by Tim Cook, Canada’s foremost Great War historian. Cook explodes this myth, as he describes how the war nearly tore the country apart, and how Canada emerged from its colonial shell thanks as much to prime minister Robert Borden’s tough leadership as to the weary courage of our troops.