Culture

Ten Important Nonfiction Books of 2014

The year's best in couldn't-put-it-down real-life thrillers.

By Crawford Kilian 27 Dec 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The end of the year is often a better time to catch up on your reading than in the dead of summer. The weather discourages going outside, so it's easier to curl up with a solid nonfiction book that rewards careful attention.

With that in mind, here are 10 nonfiction books that wouldn't let me put them down this year:

Capital, by Thomas Piketty. Reading Piketty is like thinking with a 20-point IQ boost and a much better education than your own. He changes not only the way we understand economics, but how we understand Jane Austen -- whose heroines are always on the search for a rentier husband.

He won't change the older generation of economists, but as Disraeli consoles us, "While there is death, there is hope." We'll be debating Picketty 50 years from now, hopefully in a more egalitarian society.

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The quake/tsunami that crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant is an ongoing disaster, with underpaid, over-exposed workers, botched containment projects, and thousands of people still displaced from their homes. But governments and the nuclear industry have managed to forget its lessons; Japan is planning to build more reactors, and safety guidelines continue to treat Fukushima as a one-off case. The authors make a strong case that other reactors around the world could suffer "common-mode failure" and a catastrophic meltdown.

The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was, by Chantal Hébert. This is a remarkable "counterfactual" history based on what the protagonists of the referendum themselves told Hébert they had planned to do if Jacques Parizeau and the separatists had won. It makes creepy reading, because no one had really thought carefully about it.

Parizeau was idiotically optimistic about how easy it would be, even though he and his allies Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont had wildly different plans. Preston Manning, then leader of the Opposition, would have led his Reformers out of Parliament if Jean Chretien had refused to resign. Chretien himself might have presided over the implosion of the Liberal caucus. No one comes off looking very bright, least of all the Liberals who drifted for another decade into a more decisive disaster.

Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover, by Michael Harris. This is a massive, meticulous dismantling of the Harper legacy and reputation. Harris is less concerned with analysis of Harper's motives, whether religious or ideological, than with documentation of Harper's misdeeds. This is not an "on the other hand" account. By implication, it's also a description of an unnerving gap between Harper's base and the rest of the country: We scarcely live on the same planet, and certainly not by the same rules.

Canada in the Great Power Game, by Gwynne Dyer. Dyer says that Britain recruited its white dominions into helping fight the Boer War as a dress rehearsal for the much more serious conflict the Brits foresaw with Germany. Canada went along and then joined the First World War. We dawdled for a few days before going into the Second World War but we were still loyal colonials. After the war, we shifted allegiance to the Americans, fighting in Korea, and only then began to see peacekeeping as a better job than war-fighting.

Dyer makes a good case that French-Canadian alienation was strengthened by our readiness to fight alongside our anglophone allies in wars where Canada itself faced no existential threat. We avoided Iraq (thanks to a francophone prime minister) but marched into Afghanistan at American behest -- with consequences to our politics and veterans that we will need years to remedy.

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline. Three thousand years ago, the Late Bronze Age Middle East and eastern Mediterranean enjoyed an almost globalized economy, with lively trade and communication among prosperous nations. Then everything fell apart: the mysterious Sea Peoples invaded Egypt via Lebanon and Canaan (one group settled there as the Philistines), the Hittite Empire fell, and civilization itself seemed to vanish in anarchy.

Cline argues that earthquakes, drought, and internal revolts helped cause "systems collapse"; the invasions may have been an opportunist venture against already weakened nations. But it would be centuries before a new world order would arise.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre. He still haunts the modern surveillance states, mocking the pretensions of self-style "intelligence" organizations. Philby, a Soviet agent, slipped into British intelligence through the old-boy network, where his brains and charm took him to the top.

Even better, he duped the CIA's James Jesus Angleton, who supported and protected him for years. Philby's eventual defection drove Angleton half-mad -- Angleton spent the rest of his career ransacking his own agency in search of more moles. MacIntyre takes an almost anthropological approach to the story, finding Philby's success largely due to the culture of British spies and their American apprentices -- who tended to come from New England prep schools that tried to be Eton knockoffs.

Better still, the CIA and National Security Agency survived to become Philby's bastards -- effectively autonomous offstage governments with unlimited budgets and their own domestic and foreign policies. This is their world; we live in it at their pleasure.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald. Philby's exploits inspired a generation of spy novelists, who in turn inspired Greenwald to make his factual account as suspenseful as any thriller.

Snowden emerges as a brilliant young professional, which makes his departure from the National Security Agency an implicit condemnation of all the pros still on the job. It will now be hard for the next generation of novelists to create Snowden-style heroes who are as smart as Snowden himself.

Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, by Robyn Doolittle. Like Greenwald's book, Doolittle's account of covering a big story is a big story in itself. We learn about Ford and his powerful, dysfunctional family, and also about the community they made their own: multicultural, alienated, often surviving on the wrong side of Toronto's law and bureaucracy. Ford himself is now out of office but he shouldn't be out of mind. His constituents are still there, looking for a new champion. And they're not just in Toronto.

Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, by Susan Delacourt. Modern democracies have morphed from free countries into market states. Parties and politicians are brands designed to appeal to consumer-taxpayers, not citizen-voters. Once the Conservatives brand themselves as small-government, they can expand government power at will. Once the Liberals invoke St. Pierre of Montreal, his son and heir can do anything he pleases.

All politicians, Delacourt argues, essentially pimp themselves to the voters, promising an orgiastic future that never arrives. Hey, it works -- at least until it doesn't any more, and a Rob Ford with smarts takes over.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 22 to Jan. 5 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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