The 2011 winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction will be announced today. This prize is the UK's most prestigious nonfiction award. It's worth 20,000 pounds (about $32,000). The contest is sponsored by the BBC and aims to reward the best of nonfiction published in the UK, and open to authors (regardless of nationality or country of origin) of nonfiction in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sports, travel, biography, autobiography, and the arts. 2011 marks the 13th year of the prize.
This year's finalists are:
Mao's Great Famine: the history of China's most devastating catastrophe, 1958-1962 by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury)
Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives. So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful mesghing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.Caravaggio: a life sacred and profane by Andrew Graham Dixon (Allen Lane)
For four hundred years Caravaggio's (1571-1610) staggering artistic achievements have thrilled viewers, yet his volatile personal trajectory-the murder of Ranuccio Tomasini, the doubt surrounding Caravaggio's sexuality, the chain of events that began with his imprisonment on Malta and ended with his premature death-has long confounded historians. In a bravura performance, Andrew Graham-Dixon delves into the original Italian sources, presenting fresh details about Caravaggio's sex life, his many crimes and public brawls, and the most convincing account yet published of the painter's tragic death at the age of thirty-eight. With illuminating readings of Caravaggio's infamous religious paintings, which often depict prostitutes and poor people, Graham-Dixon immerses readers in the world of Italy at the height of the Counter-Reformation and creates a masterful profile of the mercurial painter's life and work.Liberty's Exiles: American loyalists in the Revolutionary world by Maya Jasanoff (Harper Press)
On November 25, 1783, the last British troops pulled out of New York City, bringing the American Revolution to an end. Patriots celebrated their departure and the confirmation of U.S. independence. But for tens of thousands of American loyalists, the British evacuation spelled worry, not jubilation. What would happen to them in the new United States? Would they and their families be safe? Facing grave doubts about their futures, some sixty thousand loyalists—one in forty members of the American population—decided to leave their homes and become refugees elsewhere in the British Empire. They sailed for Britain, for Canada, for Jamaica, and for the Bahamas; some ventured as far as Sierra Leone and India. Wherever they went, the voyage out of America was a fresh beginning, and it carried them into a dynamic if uncertain new world.
A groundbreaking history of the revolutionary era, Liberty’s Exiles tells the story of this remarkable global diaspora. Through painstaking archival research and vivid storytelling, award-winning historian Maya Jasanoff re-creates the journeys of ordinary individuals whose lives were overturned by extraordinary events. She tells of refugees like Elizabeth Johnston, a young mother from Georgia, who spent nearly thirty years as a migrant, searching for a home in Britain, Jamaica, and Canada. And of David George, a black preacher born into slavery, who found freedom and faith in the British Empire, and eventually led his followers to seek a new Jerusalem in Sierra Leone. Mohawk leader Joseph Brant resettled his people under British protection in Ontario, while the adventurer William Augustus Bowles tried to shape a loyalist Creek state in Florida. For all these people and more, it was the British Empire—not the United States—that held the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet as they dispersed across the empire, the loyalists also carried things from their former homes, revealing an enduring American influence on the wider British world.
Ambitious, original, and personality-filled, Liberty’s Exiles is at once an intimate narrative history and a provocative new analysis—a book that explores an unknown dimension of America’s founding to illuminate the meanings of liberty itself.
The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves by Matt Ridley (Fourth Estate)
Bismarck: a life by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press)Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the twenty-first century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.
Otto von Bismarck transformed Europe more completely than anybody in the nineteenth century—except for Napoleon. He unified—and indeed, created—the country at the center of two world wars that would transform the world.Reprobates: the cavaliers of the English Civil War by John Stubbs (Viking)
This riveting biography illuminates the life of the statesman who unified Germany but who also embodied everything brutal and ruthless about Prussian culture. Jonathan Steinberg draws heavily on contemporary writings, allowing Bismarck's friends and foes to tell the story. What rises from these pages is a complex giant of a man: a hypochondriac with the constitution of an ox, a brutal tyrant who could easily shed tears, a convert to an extreme form of evangelical Protestantism who secularized schools and introduced civil divorce. Bismarck may have been in sheer ability the most intelligent man to direct a great state in modern times. His brilliance and insight dazzled his contemporaries. But all agreed there was also something demonic, diabolical, overwhelming, beyond human attributes, in Bismarck's personality. He was a kind of malign genius who, behind the various postures, concealed an ice-cold contempt for his fellow human beings and a drive to control and rule them. As one contemporary noted: "the Bismarck regime was a constant orgy of scorn and abuse of mankind, collectively and individually."
In this comprehensive and expansive biography—a brilliant study in power—Jonathan Steinberg brings Bismarck to life, revealing the stark contrast between the "Iron Chancellor's" unmatched political skills and his profoundly flawed human character.
Happy reading,With a centuries-old conflict between the monarchy and Parliament threatening to explode, a group of poets known as Cavaliers emerged to defend the king against the Protestant reformers and, in doing so, defined an artistic movement exemplified by lines such as Robert Herrick's "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." Often imagined as elegant gentlemen, chivalrous and dandified, they were just as likely to be found in the form of the degenerate Sir John Suckling or the syphilitic William Davenant.Biographer Stubbs sheds light on this groundbreaking group of men, on their world and their journeys through it, in peace and war, from the Blackfriars Playhouse to the battlefields of King Charles's kingdoms.