Poetry of America (1943) from The Wines of Gala by Salvador Dalí. Photo: SALVADOR DALI
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Books of the year 2017, part three: chosen by Joan Bakewell, Michael Moorcock, Olivia Laing and others

The New Statesman's friends and contributors recommend their top reads from the last 12 months.

Read part one of our guide to the best books of 2017 here, and part two here.

 

Olivia Laing

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.

Michael Howard

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.

Melvyn Bragg

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.

Brendan Simms

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.

Michael Brooks

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.

Michael Prodger

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)

Fiona Sampson

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.

Ray Monk

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.

Mike McCormack

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.

Philip Hoare

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.

Shiraz Maher

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.

Joan Bakewell

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.

Gerry Brakus

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

Stuart Maconie

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.

Leo Robson

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.

Melissa Benn

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.

Tom Gatti

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.

Henry Marsh

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.

Michael Moorcock

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.

Geoff Dyer

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.

Frances Wilson

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”.

Ed Smith

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.

Gavin Francis

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. 

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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Planting trees below Turkish bombs in Syria

Under assualt from all sides, the Kurds and their international helpers are trying to “Make Rojava Green Again”.

Turkey’s recent, bloody invasion of Rojava is codenamed “Operation Olive Branch”. It’s a cruel misnomer, and not only because scores of civilians have died in Turkey’s relentless and indiscriminate shelling of the progressive, Kurdish-led autonomous region

Afrin is the isolated western enclave of Rojava  that's currently under assault from Turkish artillery, jets, tanks and Turkish-backed jihadist militias. It’s famed for its four million olive trees – just as the larger eastern province of al-Jazira is “the breadbasket of Syria”, famed for its wheat.

But images of rolling olive groves and wheat blooming in the rich basin of the Euphrates river belie a history of wealth extraction and impoverishment under the Assad regime. Colonial-style oil and wheat monocultures, Turkish control of water supplies and five years of war have starved the earth. 

Kurdish-led ecological committees and like-minded international activists are working to Make Rojava Green Again”, in the words of a new internationally-focused campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees, and work with local farmers to build co-operative ecological structures.

Talk of tree nurseries seems incongruous in a warzone. But the land tells the story of the Kurds’ long repression – and the immense political and cultural challenges they face as they attempt to build a democratic, federalist alternative from the ashes of Syria.

“The attacks from the Turkish state are directly against the idea of an ecological, democratic society based on gender equality,” international volunteer Stefan tells the New Statesman over an encrypted phoneline. “Stopping this project means stopping the fight for a different society.”

Disconnected

Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities worldwide without a state of their own, instead largely inhabiting portions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their language and culture has long been violently repressed – Kurdish-language education was banned in Syria until the outbreak of civil war, for example. In popular adage, they have “no friends but the mountains”.

The Assad regime used agriculture to wring Kurdish land dry, and keep its farming inhabitants reliant on state support. “Under the Syrian regime it was more or less forbidden to plant trees,” says Ciya, a member of the self-administration’s ecological committee in al-Jazira. “The regime wanted us to grow wheat.” Kurds say the regime enforced deforestation even in the streets of cities like Kobane, as a method of subjugation.

Wheat monoculture. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

Monocultures put the population at perpetual risk of famine, and necessitate large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep the soil artificially alive – a short-term solution with ruinous results. A drought in 2007-2008 hit half-a-dozen neighbouring countries, but only in Syria did it become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Kurdish regions of northern Syria were kept dependent on Damascus for other vital necessities, and Kurdish people forced to travel into metropoles to find work.  “Under the Assad regime, the people were really disconnected from their land,” Stefan says.

Revolution

Alone on an island prison with a thousand guards for company following his 1999 capture, the venerated leader of Turkish militia group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan modified his belief in a violent Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

Instead, he developed a libertarian ideology of “democratic confederalism”. He calls for a “soft” revolution expanding through the state, with people joining local committees and co-operatives until this "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” structure becomes the system of government.

When Assad started pulling forces out of Kurdish-majority regions in 2012, the PKK’s Syrian avatar (the PYD) took control of swathes of the countryside. The region is now formally known as the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, and informally as Rojava – or “West” in Kurdish.

Perversely, ISIS’ arrival in the area – and their famous defeat by Kurdish-led militias in Kobane – gave Rojava the name on the world stage and the limited military support from the United States it needed to survive. The Kurdish PYG and PYJ militias were lionised for defeating ISIS, even as their intimate allies the PKK continue to be listed as a terror group by the UK, EU and USA.

You’ll have seen orientalising clickbait about “the women fighting ISIS”, but feminism is one of three key tenets of democratic confederalism, along with the grassroots democratisation of government and ecological principles.

British leftists who’ve returned from Rojava say the “woman’s revolution” is the most visible and successful element.  All-female militias aside, each of the thousands of local committees must have 50 per cent female representation – a principle extending to the highest offices of government. (Meanwhile, committees working on domestic issues must have a minimum 40per cent male representation, so men don’t slack off from addressing “womanly” subjects like childcare).

In a historically highly-conservative region, newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, while a “woman’s house” on every street provides a safe space as women engage in new educational and co-operative programmes.

Meanwhile, those committees provide a forum to “solve daily questions, organise yourself in a democratic, self-administrated way… [for] society to become conscious of itself again”. For now, they’re the junior partner in a dual-power system with a more traditionally top-down administration, but they provide a forum for ordinary citizens to vote on issues of region-wide significance.

It’s a slow and difficult process, with some neighbourhoods and villages engaging enthusiastically while others remain loyal to Assad or unconvinced of the revolution’s liberal merits. But everyone gets cheap bread and oil, and the flight of millions of refugees into areas now being pounded by Turkish jets shows how highly ordinary people value the security Rojava provides.

War

As Stefan acknowledges, however, the “ecological revolution” is lagging badly behind. Arguments that drought caused the Syrian Civil War are easily over-stated: what is certain is that war destroys the land.

Wells and springs were destroyed by retreating Islamic State forces, who started huge oil fires to shield their flight from American bombers. Depleted uranium, heavy metals, TNT and other toxic carcinogens from spent armaments leach into the soil.

Landfill outside of the city of Derik. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

According to Alan, another Kurdish member of al-Jazira’s ecological committee, “for years now, the Turkish state has restricted the water supply by building many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and drilling wells along the border line.”

By cutting power availability down to 6 or 12 hours daily, the “self-administration” government of Rojava nonetheless ekes out 75 per cent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric sources. Fully renewable power would be achievable, were it not for Turkish control of their water sources – or the embargo.

Neither Turkey nor the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region allow people, aid or vital supplies to cross their shared borders with Rojava. Ecological ideals of self-sufficiency therefore take on a special urgency, even as circumstances make them all but impossible. Parts to repair and improve the hydro-electric plants cannot get into the country.

The embargo also contributes to a general economic crisis - grand composting and recycling programmes, for example, remain unrealised due to lack of funds.  

On the one hand, tens of thousands of hectares are being opened up to agricultural co-operatives, led by women and young people. On the other, as this frank interview with a Kurdish economic official makes painfully clear, the co-operative or “social” economy in Rojava is still dwarfed by an oil-funded war economy.

25 per cent of crops in al-Jazira are now those – beans, chickpeas – which require no irrigation, up from only 10 per cent before the start of the “revolution.” The local committees’ educational programmes are a far cry from the dubious glamour of the battle against ISIS, but in the long run they could prove just as vital.

Internationalist Commune

Westerners who go to fight – and die – in the battle against Isis are celebrated worldwide, and venerated as martyrs in Rojava itself. But increasing numbers of leftists are joining the “civil revolution” too, as teachers, doctors, engineers and environmentalists.

Some efforts have been cack-handed, for example driving malfunctioning ambulances into a region where there’s no such thing as a 999 call. A previous ecological endeavour, the “Rojava Plan”, arrived with grand and wildly inappropriate dreams to build organic fertiliser facilities and sank without a trace.

According to Stefan, the “Internationalist Commune” of civil volunteers seek to avoid these errors by understanding the revolution as a two-way process.

“The time for international help hasn’t stopped just because the war against Daesh has stopped,” he says, using the derogatory local term for Isis. His impeccable second-language English is seeded with Kurdish terms: şehid for “martyr” and tamam, or “fine”.

“Nobody would say it’s not important to fight Isis… but it’s also important to learn from and contribute to the up-building of a new society. For us Westerners, it’s really something to see the possibility of a different future.”

The “Make Rojava Green Again” project is a part of this slow drive. Even what Stefan calls their “short-term aims” will take years – planting 10,000 trees this year, and 50,000 in the next five, plus opening up a co-operative tree nursery to support local farmers.

 Photo: Internationalist Commune.

The Commune is calling for financial support, volunteers and knowledge-sharing from scientists and ecologists worldwide, as they work together with local committees and Rojava’s two co-operative nature reserves to build a revolution lasting beyond the revolutionary moment.

“In the future I will grow more trees around [my] land to keep the earth healthy, and help the other plants to grow,” says Abu Araz, a farmer who works with the Commune. Members of the Commune are already involved in civil work in Afrin, and they hope to transplant their tree-planting programmes there in the future, as “forests get destroyed, and water polluted because of the war”.

ISIS fight under the slogan baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. But they are a vanishing force now. And though other Turkish-backed jihadist forces are vying to take their place, it is the grassroots Rojava revolution which endures.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit