Chris Petit’s The Butchers of Berlin (Simon & Schuster) is the story of a murder investigation in Berlin in 1943, when the Nazis knew the war was going against them and the city was being cleared of Jews. Unnerving in its depiction of a time when killing was an everyday occurrence, this dark and powerful novel is in a category of its own: once you’ve started reading it, you won’t easily be able to put it aside. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast (Profile Books) is the record of the author’s attempts to find out what it is like to be a non-human animal, a quest that involved living in a badger’s hole, eating worms and being hunted as a deer. A book in the singular genre of J A Baker’s shamanistic masterpiece The Peregrine, Foster’s account is precise, poetic and thought-stirring.
Few issues capture the public imagination quite so urgently as that of Islam’s troubled relationship with the West, democracy, modernity and, indeed, itself. The debate that follows is often as poorly informed as it is polarised. This is where Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism (St Martin’s Press) comes into its own. Offering a provocative thesis – that Islam is a wholly different system from normative Western values (which the West should recognise and accept) – Hamid carefully unravels various thorny issues surrounding Islam’s place in the modern world. Whatever you think of this book, and there is plenty in it to disagree with, there’s no doubt that Hamid has made a thoughtful and important contribution to a debate that many have entertained but few have understood.
John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: the Story of a Country Doctor (Canongate Canons) is a unique essay in photographs (by Jean Mohr) and prose (by Berger) about a driven and charismatic GP in the Forest of Dean, first published nearly 50 years ago. It depicts a man whose sense of medical vocation was a long way from the situation of the harassed modern professional. Yet it is an unsentimental portrait – all the more so as this edition records, shockingly, that the subject eventually committed suicide. It remains a rare meditation on love, pain, commitment and the possibilities of healing, and it is an extraordinary gift to have it back in print just at this moment. Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (Oneworld; translated by Lisa C Hayden) is also a picture of an unconventional healer, a medieval Russian holy fool. It is not at all a typical historical novel. It uses conscious and outrageous anachronisms; it is funny, subversive and vivid in its evocation of medieval life in Russia and the Middle East; and it plants questions about faith, irony, self-deception and integrity in the style of the greatest Russian fictions.
As compelling as a novel, Black Hole Blues: and Other Songs From Outer Space by Janna Levin (Bodley Head) is the definitive account of how we completed the hundred-year hunt for gravitational waves. Albert Einstein used his general theory of relativity to predict that these ripples in the fabric of the universe should exist. Levin, a professor at Columbia University, is an expert guide to the extraordinary physics and technology that confirmed Einstein’s hunch and the people who did it. Despite being granted full access by the physicists involved, she hasn’t held back from exposing their darker sides. It’s punchy, witty, timely and deeply insightful; I haven’t read a better book on the realities of doing science.
“I have long accepted my position as apostle to the lowbrows.” So said Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery, founder of the National Theatre, reviver of the Royal Opera House and, of course, creator of Civilisation. James Stourton’s immaculate biography, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (William Collins) is an elegant and perceptive portrayal of the ultimate arts grandee as a frustrated scholar. For The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden (Mainstone Press), James Russell and Tim Mainstone tracked down many of the English pastoralist’s paintings from the 1930s that disappeared into private hands. The result is a gulp-inducingly expensive (at £160) but stunningly beautiful – and revealing – book.
“The people aren’t happy. Something is stirring in towns like Middletown in rust-belt Ohio, and Jackson in Appalachian Kentucky.” Having grown up between the two, a boy from a broken family, J D Vance offers a deeply personal analysis in Hillbilly Elegy (William Collins) of the disintegration and angst of poor, white America and the tarnishing of the American dream.
Ever heard of Alex Calvo García, the Basque footballer and graduate of Real Sociedad who moved to England and became an unlikely cult hero of Scunthorpe United, despite being unable to tell the manager he was playing in the wrong position? Scunthorpe Hasta La Meurte (deCoubertin Books) by Iñigo Gurruchaga, translated by Matthew Kennington, tells this unlikely story with charm, subtle wit and deep affection for grass-roots football in northern industrial England and Spain, with their dreary terraces where dreams are occasionally born but usually go to die.
It was astonishing that Francis Spufford’s brilliant Golden Hill (Faber & Faber) didn’t appear on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Set in New York in the turbulent days before the American Revolution, this book is many things: a thriller, a meditation on the form of the novel, an examination of the beginnings of American politics. And it’s a ripping good read. As is Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (Faber & Faber), which moves us forward into 19th-century American history, when a young Irish immigrant finds himself fighting first the country’s native population, and then the Confederacy. It’s a bloody book, but one that allows for hope – just what we need right now.
What would be different if women were physically stronger than men? Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking; reviewed on page 51) imagines a world in which women develop the ability to deliver electric shocks. One of the achievements of science fiction is to render the familiar strange, and throughout this fast-paced, funny and provocative novel, Alderman shows there’s nothing “natural” about the structure of our world. What at first looks like a simple revenge fantasy – who wouldn’t want to lightly electrocute a few people? – becomes an investigation of how power corrupts. And, it turns out, electrical power corrupts absolutely.
John Bew’s Citizen Clem (Riverrun) is a book about one man – Clement Attlee, Labour’s greatest leader – but it is also the story of a political party and movement. Attlee was born into the prosperous Victorian middle classes and enlisted at the age of 31 to serve in the First World War. His politics were shaped by what Bew calls his “unobtrusive progressive patriotism” and by the time he spent working among the poor of London’s East End. Like Orwell, Attlee believed that “love of country could be a noble and unifying theme”. Read this book to understand what Labour once was and what has been lost because of its embrace of identity politics and ultra-liberalism.
The Observer, under David Astor’s editorship, gave me my first job in journalism. So Jeremy Lewis’s vivid, insightful and sometimes very funny biography of Astor (Jonathan Cape) gave me most pleasure this year. The man’s achievement was to turn the post-1945 Observer into compulsory reading for the young middle classes. Though he was a somewhat diffident editor, his engagement with important issues and his willingness to champion unpopular causes were inspirational. Lewis’s account of his life is essential reading, not just for present and aspiring editors, but for anybody who cares about newspapers.
If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that the understanding of the mind (or rather, psyche) should not be left solely to the medical establishment. We must also study our own ways of healing.
Jay Griffiths is one of the most perceptive and lyrical writers working today; she also brings deep learning and immense moral courage to Tristimania: a Diary of Manic Depression (Hamish Hamilton), an elegant and inspiring study of a condition shared by many who feel obliged to conceal their pain. A triumph in every sense, this is a book that gives us all an uncompromised and hard-earned sense of hope.
The winners this year of the Man Booker and Goldsmiths Prizes (the latter is run in association with the New Statesman) make a strong double act. Start with Paul Beatty’s bitterly funny and finely layered satire on American race relations, The Sellout (Oneworld), which – set in an LA neighbourhood that is twinned with “the lost city of White Male Privilege” – seems even more essential after the racially demarcated “whitelash” of Donald Trump’s victory. Follow with Mike McCormack’s Goldsmiths winner, Solar Bones (Tramp Press): the story of an ordinary man’s working and family life in the west of Ireland, told in a single, fluid, compelling sentence.
The work of the academic psychologist Anders Ericsson has inspired half a dozen popular accounts of the relationship between talent and effort. This year, with the science writer Robert Pool, he produced a book of his own, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Bodley Head), which may be the liveliest and clearest of the lot. Daunt Books reissued two pieces of journalism which proved that factual writing can be as “creative” as any novel: John McPhee’s Oranges and V S Pritchett’s London Perceived. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (Canongate) is a descendant – a genre-blind book about everything: art and Aids, Warhol and Winnicott, Sontag and social media.
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world