The New Statesman's friends and contributors recommend their top reads from the last 12 months.
I’m obsessed with Civilisation & Its Malcontents (Ma Bibliothèque) by the artist and film-maker Sarah Wood, a bewitchingly brilliant extended essay on Freud and Brexit. It’s a roaming rumination on the nature of civilisation, populated by rats and dead parents and set in the ruins of Rome. It’s also the sanest take on Brexit that I have read, using a psychoanalytic lens to probe the fears and hatreds that lie beneath the proliferation of borders in the world today.
Speaking of borders, Sarah Schulman’s revelatory Conflict Is Not Abuse (Arsenal) is also vital – an urgent, cogent handbook for navigating and defusing our accelerating hostilities.
I read A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s great saga of 20th-century society, many years ago and greatly enjoyed it. Hilary Spurling’s biography Anthony Powell (Hamish Hamilton) brings one back into his world with the insights that come from the added context that she provides. It is written with an elegance that does full credit to its subject. And it is strangely comforting, in an age when politics is suffering a battering from all sides, to discover that the politics of publishing before the war – and perhaps even today – could be just as vicious as anything we see at Westminster.
In 1995, Robert McCrum, in full sail as an outstanding editor and author, was felled by a severe stroke. His determination not to let it interrupt his career was remarkable. Every Third Thought (Picador) – part autobiography, part meditations on death, part interviews – is seasoned by telling references to a wide range of literature. It is moving, intellectual and unsentimental. I think it will become a classic.
Ian McEwan’s brilliance as a stylist and surprise plotter finds a fitting subject in Nutshell (published in paperback this year by Vintage), which is Hamlet as told from inside the womb. Up there with his best.
I was completely absorbed by Tony Connelly’s Brexit and Ireland (Penguin Ireland), exploring the dangers, the opportunities and the inside story of the Irish response, which I picked up on the way back from my home town of Dublin. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Brexit, for which there is a perfectly defensible argument on the British side, the book shows that it is an unmitigated catastrophe for Ireland. The threat to the “peace process” in the form of the border question is well known, but Connelly shows that the implications for the Irish Republic extend to the entire economy and its relationship with the EU.
Decades from now, our generation may be judged on how we reacted to the arrival of artificial intelligence. Astonishing advances – from DeepMind’s go-playing algorithms, controversial implementations by Facebook, AI-influenced courtroom decisions and the creeping spectre of killer robots – make this subject worth urgent attention, especially as its proponents argue that AI could still be the best thing that ever happened to us. With Android Dreams: The Past, Present and Future of Artificial Intelligence (Hurst), Toby Walsh, an AI expert based at the University of New South Wales, has written a sober, thoughtful and fascinating book that walks non-experts through the technology, examines its strengths and shortcomings and draws sensible conclusions about its likely impact.
Martin Salisbury’s sumptuous The Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920-1970 (Thames & Hudson) drips with period flavour and shows how false the distinction between fine and applied art can be. Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone were among those who happily crossed the line to join specialists such as Brian Cook and Cecil W Bacon to produce supremely stylish jackets that were often superior to the books they wrapped.
Mr Lear (Faber & Faber), Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear, the creator of superb bird illustrations, Mediterranean views and nonsense verse, shows a man as varied as his work but considerably sadder.
Art by CW Bacon (1905-1992) from The Illustrated Dust Jacket (Thames & Hudson)
Like his previous novel Zone, Mathias Énard’s Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions) far outstrips even its own astonishing technique to create a brilliantly lit, wholly addictive world of post-colonialism and romantic obsession. It’s also a virtuoso feat by the translator Charlotte Mandell.
One of the poetry events of the year, oddly overlooked here, was surely the publication of Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems (Bloodaxe), translated by the leading American poet Forrest Gander and handsomely presented with bilingual text and holographs. Discovered in 2014 and issued in the US last year, these are emphatically not literary leftovers, and they give us Pablo Neruda at his full emotional and imaginative stretch.
Samaritans (Endeavour Press) by Jonathan Lynn is a darkly funny satire of the American health system by the co-creator and co-writer of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, which serves as a timely warning of the creeping privatisation that threatens to destroy the NHS.
Another important warning is given in Grazed and Confused?, a report published this year by an international team of scientists led by the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University. It is downloadable from the web and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the devastating effects that animal farming is having on our environment.
The best novel I read this year was Tim Parks’s In Extremis (Harvill Secker), a frantic and minutely observed comedy of family, marriage, life and death. There is something in the synaptic twitch of Parks’s prose that brings us closer to the pressures and rhythms of a lived life than the work of any other contemporary writer I can think of.
I have three different translations of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, each of them substantially different. And now Serpent’s Tail has published what is subtitled “The Complete Edition”. It’s hard to explain how this modernist hymnal of boredom, fatigue, dejection and jadedness is so beautiful and life affirming. Perfect winter reading.
Michael Franks’s stylish, dysfunctional childhood memoir of 1970s Hollywood and his outrageous Aunt Hankie, The Mighty Franks (Fourth Estate), reads like a Truman Capote story. It was so good that I had to read it twice.
From overheated California to the frozen top of the world: Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker (Chatto & Windus) sails with a phlegmatic Finnish crew into threatening and threatened polar waters: “The sea remains the last place to which you can run away.” Clare’s witty prose, filled with vivid descriptions, bears witness to the melting skin of our fragile planet and all that its loss might mean for our souls.
When it comes to writing about Islamic State in new and interesting ways, Graeme Wood has form. For the Atlantic in 2015, he authored a wildly influential essay on the ideas driving the group, exploring how “Islamic” it really is. “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” he found. “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs.”
That investigation has given rise to a book on the same subject, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State (Allen Lane), in which Wood expands and builds on his essay. One of his great achievements is that he transforms an otherwise depressing and dense topic into something that is not just accessible but, at times, even amusing, while losing none of his analytical rigour – think a mixture of Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson surveying Islamic State’s global network of supporters.
Death haunts us, and in Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) George Saunders mines the many ways it does: the Gothic, the sentimental, the fearful and, above all, the grief-stricken. As more of us are living longer, we know loss and grieving better and the culture is increasingly encouraging us to talk about it (I broadcast about it).
As the role of women undergoes yet another convulsion, it’s good to read, in Lyndall Gordon’s Outsiders (Virago), of the robust intelligence of five women who made a powerful contribution. The work and lives of Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf are well known. Gordon’s thesis sets out just how original and brave they were – and at what cost. We owe them much.
In a year of great political upheaval, escaping from reality has been even more of a priority than usual. One book that is sure to send you on a wonderfully surreal journey is Salvador Dalí’s The Wines of Gala (Taschen). First published in 1977, this new edition is faithful in its reproduction and, with observations such as “Whoever has drunk wine can forgive drunkenness,” it will guide me smoothly through the festive season.
Closer to reality but more dreamlike in feel is Exile by Vasantha Yogananthan (Chose Cummune). The third book in the photographer’s A Myth of Two Souls series, it is inspired by the Ramayana, which is beautifully evoked in this fairy tale of a book. Finally, I find myself frequently revisiting Mimi Mollica’s photographs in Terra Nostra (Dewi Lewis), for a dose of unsettling and very real Sicilian life.
The images in Exile by Vasantha Yogananthan are inspired by the Ramayana. Photo: Vasantha Yogananthan
There are a lot of “How to Be” books around these days and a lot of them are awful. Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy (Canongate), however, is true to the spirit of the first and best of these modern memoirs, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, in that it is funny, terrifically well written and has a core of quietly defiant proletarian anger glittering at its core.
Chris Renwick’s Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State (Allen Lane) makes a gripping human story out of the wisest and most progressive policy achievement of any government in the history of the world but doesn’t shirk the nuts and bolts of politics and sociology. Struggled for, sacralised and now besieged, the welfare state deserves books this good.
For anyone who has ever spent time trying to compose a piece of non-fiction of any length, the word “godsend” does not adequately describe John McPhee’s Draft No 4 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a masterclass in practising what you preach as you preach it – in showing as well as telling the prospective journalist or memoirist or narrative historian, or the all-too-human pro, how to devise a structure, take a note, choose a verb and nail a fact. Though McPhee’s work as a reporter involved him in more outwardly strenuous tasks – hiking, canoeing, and so on – this book is a testament to his decades of excruciating graft at the desk. Kevin Davey’s Playing Possum (Aaaargh! Press), a fantasia spun from the vast mythology that has grown around TS Eliot, is brave and brilliantly executed.
Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers (Unbound) is a must-read for anyone interested in how we can create a world-class education system. Crehan sets out on a journey to Finland, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Shanghai to find out how learning relates to national cultures, expectations and limitations. Her final chapter, setting out the five principles that shape high-performing and equitable systems, should be photocopied and stuck on the office wall of every politician responsible for education in this country.
On the fiction front, I enjoyed Kamila Shamsie’s Man Booker-longlisted Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), which does a great job of bringing Sophocles’s Antigone into the world of Skype and Isis. Shamsie’s writing resonates on the human, political and lyrical plane but its topicality, tight plot and vivid characterisation also suggest a film script in the making.
Maria Apichella’s Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) is a thrilling narrative poem that not only tells a gripping love story but plays with the psalm form to meditate on faith in the modern world. I’ve never read anything quite like it.
On the back of Patricia Lockwood’s brilliantly anarchic memoir, Priestdaddy, Penguin has finally published her second poetry collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals in the UK. Pastoral verse meets porn spam in work that walks a line between hilarity and horror. A gloriously oddball talent.
By far the best book I read this year was Robert M Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, a wonderfully lucid, scholarly and witty account of the biological basis of human behaviour, starting with the neuroscience of nerve cells, neurotransmitters and hormones and ending with history and anthropology. Once you have read it, you will see neither yourself nor your fellow humans in the same way as before.
It should be read in conjunction with Stephen Bernard’s terrifying and eloquent Paper Cuts (Jonathan Cape), an extraordinary personal account of the psychological consequences of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. As Sapolsky explains, early experiences can change our brains for ever. If as much money was spent on improving childhood as is spent on cancer research and treatment, prolonging old age (since cancer is primarily a disease of later life), the world would be a much better place.
Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) began a psychogeographical sequence remaking and rediscovering London’s history through individuals and local ambience, and his elegaic The Last London (Oneworld) concludes it. Where JG Ballard lauds the sexual aesthetics of the M25, Sinclair gives voice to those living and working beneath it, creating fresh narratives to replace those that the developers steal from us.
I loved Le Coup de Prague (Aire Libre) by Jean-Luc Fromental and Miles Hyman. Their noirish comic book speculates about Graham Greene’s visit to Vienna following the Second World War, inspiring The Third Man. Moodily drawn and sardonically written, it’s a fine example of an adult graphic novel.
My favourite discovery this year was the reissue of Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh and LA (New York Review Books). First published in 1977, it’s a collection of linked, neurotically funny, autobiographical stories about the kind of stuff you would expect from southern California in the 1970s. The sensual pleasures of the prose are overseen by a blue-sky metaphysics. (In a modernist dream house in Palm Springs where every door and window slides, Babitz’s companion realises that life is intolerable without doorknobs.) There’s no satire here – that would be too easy. It is more like a series of intoxicated love letters that have the potential to become an endlessly postponed suicide note.
Jacqueline Yallop’s memoir, Big Pig, Little Pig (Fig Tree), is a beautifully written and quietly devastating account of raising two young pigs on her smallholding in the south of France. They are charming and intelligent beasts with twirling tails, knobbly knees and bristly black manes. They hate courgettes, laugh with glee in hosepipe showers and enjoy sashaying down the lane, snacking on hawthorn bushes. Is it anthropomorphic, Yallop wonders, to note that the bigger pig is introverted and wise, while the smaller one is extroverted and a tad selfish? Just as we think we’re in the realm of Babe or Charlotte’s Web, the book turns into the George Orwell essay “Shooting an Elephant”.
I enjoyed Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist (Picador). The novel sets up a tiny tobacconist’s shop in 1930s Vienna as a window on to a street, a city and a continent, all drifting into conflict. It shows how fiction can use the personal to explore the biggest themes. Staying in the 1930s, I read Giorgio Bassani’s elegiac 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, having been given the exquisite Folio Society edition. There’s so much to admire, especially its restraint. It’s a book in which you do not get the romantic resolution you thought you wanted but get instead the deeper satisfaction of experiencing a truthful – albeit painful – rendering of imagined events.
The two new books that have most enthralled me this year – the ones that I have read and reread – were first published in their home countries years ago. The first, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, was published by Seattle’s Wave Books in 2009 but has found a UK publisher with Jonathan Cape. It takes the form of 240 fragments or “propositions”, each a distilled meditation on grief, recovery and redemption. The second, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions), was first published in 2007 by Wydawnictwo Literackie in Krakow. It is both a novel and an intricate anatomy of travel, occupying a playfully ambiguous zone between fiction and non-fiction.