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The Best of Books 2018

Editors' Picks

The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66

by Geoffrey Robinson

In this authoritative and harrowing account of the massacres of Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s, Robinson seeks to recover the episode from historical oblivion. What emerges is a scathing and persuasive indictment of the Indonesian military and the foreign powers—especially the United States and the United Kingdom—that were complicit in the brutality.

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The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War

by Benn Steil

In his well-crafted book, Steil argues that although the Marshall Plan was a strategic success, it also contributed mightily to the evolving Cold War. He shows that key U.S. policymakers understood that the initiative would trigger a Soviet clampdown in Eastern Europe and solidify the division of the continent—and went ahead with it anyway.

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The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

by Masha Gessen

Gessen’s book is both a sweeping attempt to capture the last 40 years of Russian history and a personal reckoning. Gessen follows the lives of seven Russians and, in the process, recounts a battle of ideas about Russia and its future.

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Political and Legal

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century

by Helena Rosenblatt

In this lively and penetrating book, Rosenblatt offers an intellectual history of liberalism, from its roots in Roman notions of civic duty and public morality down to its modern incarnations.

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The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

by Timothy Snyder

In an earlier book, Bloodlands, Snyder told the story of Nazi and Soviet genocidal violence. In this new work, Snyder makes an eloquent and frightening argument that fascism and authoritarianism have returned in new and subtler guises.

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How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue in this important study that democracies are dying in slower and more subtle ways than they did in the past—and Western democracies, including the United States, are not immune.

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Economic | Social | Environmental

Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet

by Varun Sivaram

Sivaram’s enlightening and candid book describes both the enormous progress that has already been made in exploiting solar energy and the major obstacles to further progress.

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Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy

by Douglas A. Irwin

At a time when Washington’s approach to trade seems to be undergoing a significant shift, this magisterial book surveys the entire history of U.S. trade policy since the Colonial era, using congressional debates and actions to show how conflicting domestic economic interests have led Americans to clash repeatedly over trade.

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Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State

by Paul Tucker

Tucker’s thoughtful disquisition on democracy in modern societies focuses on the relationships between citizens and various branches of the state.

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Military | Scientific | Technological

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Many books have charted the use and misuse of social media, but this is one of the most comprehensive and up to date. Singer and Brooking explain not only how this new information environment developed but also why our attitudes and behaviors are so susceptible to manipulation.

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The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

by Daniel Ellsberg

This candid and chilling memoir describes how Ellsberg came to recognize that the U.S. military’s approach to preparing for nuclear war was terrifyingly casual. If war came, the United States was ready to obliterate not only the Soviet Union but also China—a plan that would have immediately produced 275 million fatalities and then led to another 50 million, owing to the effects of radiation.

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Sons and Soldiers

by Bruce Henderson

During World War II, almost 2,000 young Jewish men who had escaped to the United States from Austria and Nazi Germany joined the U.S. military, where their detailed knowledge of German military tactics and culture played a vital role as U.S. forces fought to liberate Europe. Henderson tells this tale skillfully, through the stories of eight young men.

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The United States

Grant

by Ron Chernow 

Despite his efforts as both general and president to defend the newly freed slaves of the American South after the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant lies almost forgotten in his grave. Chernow has undertaken to remedy this historical injustice. The result is a sympathetic but clear-eyed biography that will be the starting point for all future studies of this enigmatic man. 

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The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

by Salena Zito and Brad Todd

Zito and Todd use a mixture of journalistic interviews and demographic analysis to understand why so many American swing state voters supported Donald Trump in 2016, challenging the idea that Trump voters were xenophobes and racists.

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No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding

by Sean Wilentz

Was the U.S. Constitution a pro-slavery document, or did it, as President Abraham Lincoln argued, deny slavery a place in national law and point toward abolition? Wilentz’s qualified endorsement of Lincoln’s interpretation is both bracing and brave.

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Western Europe

EuroTragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts

by Ashoka Mody

In this book, the best history of the recent eurozone crisis yet to appear, Mody argues that the euro is dysfunctional “because it defies the principles of economics.”

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The Road To Somewhere: The Populist Revolt And The Future Of Politics

by David Goodhart

In this timely book, Goodhart identifies two basic groups in British society: “anywheres” and “somewheres” and shows how the cosmopolitan elite has stacked the educational, economic, and cultural deck against the latter group.

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Go, Went, Gone

by Jenny Erpenbeck

This brilliantly understated novel traces with uncommon delicacy and depth the interior transformation of a retired German classicist after he stumbles upon a group of unauthorized African migrants encamped in Berlin.

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Western Hemisphere

Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America

by Michel Gobat

This account of the life and times of the American adventurer William Walker, who briefly seized the presidency of Nicaragua in the 1850s, paints Walker as a private standard-bearer of American democracy, entrepreneurialism, and technological progress. Gobat’s history reveals both the threat and the promise of U.S. liberal imperialism.

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Where the Land Meets the Sea: Fourteen Millennia of Human History at Huaca Prieta, Peru

Edited by Tom D. Dillehay

The contributors to this engrossing book reveal the ancient Andeans’ culinary habits, artistic practices, and social organization at what Dillehay labels “one of the most complex prepottery coastal sites” ever discovered.

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Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence

by Phillip Brenner and Peter Eisner

A productive partnership between Brenner, a veteran Cuba expert, and Eisner, an accomplished journalist, has resulted in an eminently accessible, engaging journey through five centuries of Cuba’s tortured yet hopeful history.

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Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics

The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order

by Bruno Maçães

The future, Maçães argues in this startlingly original assessment, will be dominated by an emerging Eurasian “supercontinent,” shaped by China’s, Russia’s, and the EU’s competing visions. 

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Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, 1929–1941

by Stephen Kotkin

This is the second volume of Kotkin’s massive biographical trilogy. In exquisite detail, it covers the critical years of Stalinism, from the decision to storm the country by collectivizing agriculture and imposing forced-draft industrialization, through the purges of the Great Terror, to the outbreak of World War II. 

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Vanguard Of The Revolution: The Global Idea Of The Communist Party

by A. James McAdams

In 1985, McAdams notes, 38 percent of the world’s population lived under communist regimes, and some 107 communist parties operated worldwide, with a total membership of 82 million people. McAdams tells the story of how this movement grew out of the crucible of nineteenth-century Europe, flourished in the Soviet Union, and then spread to China, Cuba, and beyond.

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Middle East

The Political Economy of Reforms in Egypt: Issues and Policymaking Since 1952

by Khalid Ikram

This outstanding book puts Egypt’s economic history in the context of those of other developing countries, comparing it to such histories in East Asia and Latin America. Ikram skillfully weaves economic theory into his account of Egyptian policies over the last half century and assesses the role and effectiveness of foreign aid in the country.

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Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power

by Aisha Ahmad

In this one-of-a-kind book, Ahmad offers a simple and compelling hypothesis regarding the relationship between business elites and jihadists in Afghanistan and Somalia: anarchy is bad for business, so traders embrace Islam in order to create a black-market economy based on religious trust.

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The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement

by Martyn Frampton

Frampton exhaustively chronicles the history of the Muslim Brotherhood from its founding in 1928 to the Arab Spring of 2011.

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Asia and Pacific

Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall

by Margaret E. Roberts

Roberts disputes the conventional wisdom that the Chinese government exerts near-total control over the Internet. Instead, she shows that Beijing uses “porous censorship,” which is effective because is less conspicuous and arouses little opposition.

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Japanese War Criminals: The Politics of Justice After the Second World War

by Sandra Wilson, Robert Cribb, Beatrice Trefalt, and Dean Aszkielowicz

Although studied less often than the Nuremberg trials, the prosecution of Japanese war criminals after World War II was a major undertaking. This legal and political history explores with exemplary nuance and clarity how the Allies handled it.

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Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore

by Beng Huat Chua

This penetrating account of the Singapore model explains why the model works—and why it is not transferable to other countries.

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Africa

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa

by Alexis Okeowo

Avoiding standard reportorial clichés about Africa, Okeowo, a Nigerian American journalist, narrates four stories about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

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Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

by Alexander Thurston

Thurston’s scholarly work stands out from the spate of journalistic accounts of Boko Haram, offering an authoritative take on the group’s murky origins and wisely situating its rise within the context of Nigerian political history.

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Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak

by Reid Wilson

The 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed at least 11,000 people, mostly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This excellent book examines the global response to the epidemic and show how woefully unprepared the international community was for the crisis.

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