It's an annual holiday tradition, usually served after a few glasses of wine, but before the turkey is carved: the long, drawn-out debate about current events. When your uncle starts to explain his long-held conspiracy theory about how the government is trying to control our minds through subliminal messages on television, you can either slink away and take comfort in football — or, with the help of six authors, impress your family by being prepared for any news-related argument.
This year saw the release of fascinating and informative books about America's first president and the history-making election of our most recent one. Other writers contributed beautifully written, interesting stories of the great migration of African-Americans in the 20th century, the recent global financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan. We can't guarantee these books will help you convince your cousin that every American election is not, in fact, rigged by the Federal Reserve and the Trilateral Commission — but you'll definitely sound smarter trying.
Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow; hardcover, 904 pages; The Penguin Press, list price: $40
If you want to understand what's happening in America, you have to start from the beginning. Luckily, books about revolutionary history have been like catnip to publishers in recent years, and 2010 saw the release of acclaimed books about Patrick Henry and John and Abigail Adams, among others. The most impressive of the lot is Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life, a long but never long-winded biography of the first American president. Chernow does an admirable job explaining a president who could be as difficult and contradictory as the nation itself — Washington was reserved and almost shy, but he also had a fiery temper; he was known as a generous and tolerant man to many, but also as a strict and occasionally violent master to the slaves he owned. It's probably true that most Americans regard Washington with, as Chernow writes, "a frosty respect" rather than a "visceral appreciation." While Washington: A Life might not make Americans fall in love with the enigmatic president, it proves to be a fascinating portrait not just of the planter from Virginia, but of a country founded on a promise it's only now beginning to keep.
The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine
By Michael Lewis; hardcover, 266 pages; W. W. Norton & Company, list price: $27.95
It's probably safe to say that absent some kind of magical holiday miracle, the financial crisis that began in 2007 won't be over in 2010. Even though it's been three years since the economy started its spiral, most of us still don't understand what "collateralized debt obligations" are, and why they've made our checking accounts dwindle to alarming levels. As a young investor who studied subprime mortgage bonds tells investigative journalist Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker, Moneyball): "[T]here's a reason why it doesn't quite make sense to us. It's because it doesn't quite make sense." In The Big Short, however, Lewis manages the near impossible — he explains the roots of the financial crisis in an absorbing, easy-to-understand way. Lewis' smart, entertaining book follows a handful of mavericks who saw the subprime mortgage crisis coming and, to the tune of millions, profitably shorted — i.e., bet against — the market. The present economic meltdown has changed everything, of course, from the way Americans vote to the way we conduct wars; The Big Short provides a necessary, if discouraging, explanation of how one of the worst financial crises in history came to pass.
Game Change: Obama And The Clintons, McCain And Palin, And The Race Of A Lifetime
By John Heilemann and Mark Halperin; hardcover, 464 pages; Harper, list price: $27.99
In America, it's never not election season, and with pressing economic and foreign policy issues on everyone's minds, the stakes seem to keep getting higher with each race. The TV commercials and yard signs from the midterms might be gone now, but speculation about 2012 is already rampant — there's a reason you're seeing Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in the headlines. Whoever ends up running, the 2012 presidential race is almost certain to feature familiar names, and that's just one of the things that make Game Change required reading for any political junkie. Journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin take no prisoners — they call Palin a "big-time control freak" and refer to former Clinton strategist Dick Morris as an "ideologically androgynous Svengali." An unflinchingly honest, sometimes brutal chronicle of the 2008 election, Game Change might be the best book about a presidential election since What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer's revelatory account of the 1988 race. And as another election approaches quickly, it's a reminder that while America might have made history two years ago, we're still waiting to see what history makes of us.
By Sebastian Junger; hardcover, 304 pages; Twelve, list price: $26.99
Operation Enduring Freedom has endured for more than nine years, challenged two American presidents, and withstood countless debates played out in the government and the media. Hundreds of writers have covered the politics and the considerable financial cost of the conflict, but in War, journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) chronicles the day-to-day lives of those actually fighting — the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. Junger was embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in 2007 and 2008 in the Korengal Valley, "the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate." In the absorbing and unforgettable War, Junger's reporting — delivered with both plainspoken urgency and a matter-of-factness that is careful not to be sentimental or condescending — is the closest most Americans will ever get to the experience of putting their lives on the line in a global conflict they may or may not understand. War is the most accomplished book yet written about the tangle in Afghanistan, and it's also a stunning account of dedication, fear and the struggle to bring freedom to a historically troubled nation.
The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America's Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson; hardcover, 640 pages; Random House, list price: $30
African-American history is American history — when our nation elected its first black president, citizens of all ethnic groups realized we'd reached a turning point in our history. Nevertheless, the story of the Great Migration — in which almost 6 million black Americans left the South and moved to cities north and west over a period of several decades — remains, as journalist Isabel Wilkerson writes, "perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century." Driven out of their Southern hometowns by Jim Crow laws and the constant threat of racist violence, African-Americans changed the face of U.S. cities from Oakland to Harlem — and in the process, changed American culture forever. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson recounts the journeys of three such "refugees," mixing in history, sociology and reflections about her own experience as the daughter of Southern migrants. The fascinating characters, and Wilkerson's flawless prose, make this a book that's almost impossible to stop reading — it's not just a masterpiece of narrative history, it's a vitally important chronicle of a country struggling to keep its promise to itself and the world.