Donald Trump loomed large this year. Photo: Getty
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Books of the year 2017, part two: chosen by Nicola Sturgeon, Alan Johnson, Sara Baume 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.

 

Nicola Sturgeon

The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday) by John Boyne is a big, sweeping novel. We visit Cyril Avery at seven-year intervals, following his life’s journey from birth to an unwed Irish mother and adoption by an odd Dublin couple (“You’re not a real Avery,” they frequently remind him) to his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality and find a sense of belonging.

It is as much the story of modern Ireland as the story of one man. The novel begins in 1945 with Avery’s mother cast out of her community and ends just as Ireland votes to legalise gay marriage – a country making peace with its past and finally allowing Avery to feel at home. It is a beautifully written epic and will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

Ed Balls

With Donald Trump in the White House, American politics in chaos and US foreign policy bafflingly obscure, what better time to be the BBC’s North America editor? Jon Sopel is clearly having a ball, and If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes from Trump’s America (BBC Books) is entertaining and insightful in equal measure. Sopel reflects thoughtfully on what is going on and his chapter on the epidemic of prescription drug addiction that is sweeping America is especially worth reading.

John Burnside

Whenever Kay Redfield Jamison publishes a new book, a part of my world seems to be illumined, the colours become clearer and the shadows more distinct, and superstitions and magical thinking are dispelled. This year is no exception. Her wise and compassionate biography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf) not only reminded me of that poet’s particular gifts but made me think about the nature of creativity and the slapdash thinking we apply to those who endure the burden of an unquiet mind.

As for poetry, it was a rather thin year, but one book by David Harsent makes up for a great deal, and Salt (Faber & Faber) is a masterpiece.

John Bew

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the standout biography is about the man who lowered the hammer and sickle flag. Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster) is a fitting sequel to William Taubman’s previous biography of Nikita Khrushchev, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2004.

Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Allen Lane) began from conversations about family history with the author’s father. It fans out into a remarkable narrative that spans 20th-century Europe and pivots around the story of his Russian revolutionary socialist grandfather, Max, who fled to England in 1909.

Rachel Reeves

Harriet Harman’s autobiography, A Woman’s Work (Allen Lane), is a personal memoir but also the story of women in politics and public life. Since Harriet entered parliament in 1982 – pregnant with her first child – she has seen the number of women MPs increase to more than 200. Many of us are there because of her – but most important is her work to improve the lives of women across the country, from maternity leave to helping women fleeing domestic violence.

There is still a stigma associated with loneliness and the Jo Cox commission on loneliness, which I have co-chaired since Jo was murdered, shines a spotlight on its causes and effects. That is exactly what Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins), does, too. It is a beautiful, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking novel, and a reminder that there is a need in all of us for love, kindness and meaning.

Mehdi Hasan

Raise your hand if you think, like I do, that Donald Trump is madder than a box of frogs – or if the thought of his short finger on the nuclear button keeps you awake at night. Now we have a book featuring the verdicts of 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts to confirm our worst fears. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (Thomas Dunne Books) joins the dots between the US president’s “extreme present hedonism”, “malignant narcissism” and “sociopathic characteristics”. The book’s editor, Bandy Lee, told me that her concern is that Trump’s condition is “actually probably far worse than people are detecting now” and that “the worst is yet to come”. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

The Unquotable Trump by R Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly) reimagines famous comic book covers using real Trump utterances. Picture: © 2017 R Sikoryak

Susan Hill

In a year of outstanding non-fiction, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (Viking) shines. Her lives of past writers are meticulously researched but devoid of dryness. Now she looks unflinchingly back at her own life, scarred by griefs, struggles, turbulence and – for so calm and gentle a woman – occasional bad behaviour. This is a piercing book: honest, moving, vivid.

Celebrities who turn to writing children’s books usually do so cynically. Not David Walliams. Bad Dad (HarperCollins) is a blast. Kids will adore it. So did I.

Tom Holland

Richard Beard is a writer whose novels are as clever as they are affecting and as experimental as they are gripping – so it did not surprise me that The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker), an account of how, as a boy, he watched his brother drown on a family holiday, should be a misery memoir like no other. A study in bereavement, it is very much more than that: an interrogation of memory, of the English class system, of the limits of language. It also features a surprising amount of cricket. I read nothing this year that I admired quite as much.

Emily Wilson

One of the most striking new books about the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity is The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity by Johanna Hanink (Harvard University Press), which sets the Greek economic debt crisis against the cultural “debt” that modern Greeks still feel to antiquity and argues that idealising visions of it have had a damaging effect on contemporary European identity.

In fictional responses to the Classics, I very much enjoyed and admired Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus), a politically and psychologically acute novel modelled on Sophocles’s Antigone – but reworked as the story of two British Muslim sisters and their jihadist brother.

Alan Johnson

I have loved every Salman Rushdie book I have read and The Golden House (Jonathan Cape) is no exception. Woven into its rich fabric are huge contemporary themes: the suspicion of experts, gender identification, the Trump phenomenon. I have friends who can’t get past the first sentence of a Rushdie novel – but the glorious opening line here is almost worth buying the book for.

Alan Bennett must be tired of being described as whimsical. As A Life Like Other People’s (Faber & Faber) demonstrates, the adjective is insufficient. He is a superbly gifted observer of the human condition and this book moved me more than anything else I’ve read this year.

Ahdaf Soueif

I enjoyed two books in particular. One tells the story of a boy and a girl living in a small, specific, enclosed location; the other discusses the state of the entire world and why it is how it is today. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane) makes fresh and significant associations between historic moments in different parts of the world over the past 200 years.

William Sutcliffe’s We See Everything (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) is confined to a dystopian, circumscribed London, patrolled by the murderous drones of the enemy. Both books describe our world: a world where politics has almost ended and money and brute force have taken over.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Two books made me think about what it is to be human, from two different directions. In To Be a Machine (Granta), Mark O’Connell recounts his encounters – some hair-raising, some hilarious – with those who believe that the future of our species lies in a merger with machines.

While O’Connell’s engineers try to build computers that mimic our ways of thinking, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (William Collins) describes an intelligence so different from our own that it makes you question what intelligence means, in a book that is full of wonder and tough questions.

Sebastian Barry

I’ve always leaned on poetry as something more thrilling than… well, almost anything – religion, for instance. The older I get, the more essential poetry seems and, alas, the converse for the latter. Two books from this year give further proof of this: Sinéad Morrissey’s starry poetic engineering in On Balance (Carcanet) and Michael Longley’s angelic Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape), which was also proof, maybe, that Homer never died. Northern Ireland’s poets continue to outstare miserable politics and offer instead the better firearms of beauty and truth.

Jon McGregor

Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Hamish Hamilton) is a series of wonderful, thorny, scrupulous essays about writing and life, and the writing life. It is generous and fearless and difficult to hold in your hands.

Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Corsair) is an excellent collection of poems. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel as blazingly hymn-like as its title suggests.

Sara Baume

The book that left the most indelible mark on me was To Be a Machine (Granta) by Mark O’Connell, which describes the author’s journey through the transhumanist movement. After reading it, I dreamed of severed heads and super-intelligent robots. O’Connell’s style is at once sceptical and open and warm; his book is both frightening and full of humanity.

In the aftermath of Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press), I had to resist the urge to weigh every book in my house in order to find the heaviest. It left a gentler mark, but no less stubborn.

Rowan Williams

Among new novels, Marie-Elsa Bragg’s debut, Towards Mellbreak (Chatto & Windus), stood out for me – a closely observed rural family chronicle, a fierce indictment of the ignorant authoritarianism of government agencies in recent decades promoting untried, environmentally disastrous and lethally poisonous pesticides in the countryside, and an understated but strong celebration of spiritual discovery and resilience.

The other book to remember was the reprint of E Amy Buller’s Darkness Over Germany (Arcadia Books), first published in 1943: reports of her conversations with a wide range of “ordinary” Germans in the 1930s, pointing up what happens when national confusion, mistrust in public servants and public service, cynicism, xenophobia and economic chaos take over a society. If we want to know – and we ought to want to know just now – what prompts the collapse of law-based democracy, this is a good place to start.

Erica Wagner

I can’t choose Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) by George Saunders: everyone will, right? Still, it’s utterly astonishing. As is Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko (Apollo), a window into the world of Koreans in Japan, an epic family saga.

Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poems, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe), is heartbreaking: she was a poet always in her heart, and she left us far too soon when she died in June. And the second volume of Simon Schama’s magisterial history of the Jewish people, Belonging (Bodley Head), is a masterpiece of historical narrative.

Mark Cocker

The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (Oneworld) by Nate Blakeslee weaves together three narratives in one superb book. He tells of the intensely sociable and frequently violent world of the wolf pack. There are the naturalists studying wolves at Yellowstone National Park in the US, whose devotion to their totem animal borders on the religious. Then there are the ranchers, hunters, politicians and so on who hate and kill wolves so often that it is a miracle that any survive. Blakeslee’s triumph is to tell all three stories with deep sympathy and insight.

Vince Cable

I am a great fan of Robert Harris, who I regard as a role model for anyone who wants to get into political thriller writing. Munich (Hutchinson) is a wonderful tale of personal relationships and political drama, built around the Munich conference before the Second World War, when Neville Chamberlain produced the infamous “peace for our time” speech. This is a very, very good read.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta) vibrates with creative energy. It’s a chronicle of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and also a haunting fable of music silenced and of loves postponed, played out over the melancholy vastness of an imagined China.

In CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings (Fourth Estate), the breeding of racehorses provides a potent metaphorical language for the discussion of racism. In grand, lyrical prose, Morgan summons up the Kentucky landscape and tells a tale full of charismatic characters and idiosyncratic voices.

Mark Lawson

Seeking a template for these dark and strange days, many works (from the BBC series Doctor Foster to novels by Salman Rushdie and Colm Tóibín) have modernised Greek dramas. A particularly classy example was Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), in which Kamila Shamsie relocates Antigone by Sophocles to Western and Eastern capitals during the “war on terror”.

In The Feud (Pantheon), Alex Beam tells the improbably enthralling comi-tragic story of how the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov and the American Russophile critic Edmund Wilson ended up viciously duelling with typewriters over prosody and vocabulary in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane) draws on his experience of four controversial institutions – the Tory party, the Vatican, the Chinese government and the BBC – to swell the tiny list of intelligent and cultured memoirs by front-line politicians.

Helen Lewis

Looking at my Kindle history, two themes dominate: America’s racial divide and the ways that big tech companies are shaping our personal lives, society and democracy. On the former, Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press), Arlie Russell Hochschild’s warm, perceptive study of right-wingers in Louisiana, stands out, as do the collected essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (Hamish Hamilton).

On big tech, Everybody Lies (Bloomsbury) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a sobering guide to how much of ourselves we’re putting online and what private companies might do with that information.

For personal reasons, I loved Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy (Canongate), which started life as a New Statesman article and is now a funny, moving book.

Alexander McCall Smith

Memoirs of friendship have a particular appeal. They are often touching and not infrequently they throw a light on a life that a conventional biography might not supply. Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo (Polygon) is a charming, beautifully written account of the author’s friendship with Muriel Spark. The centenary of her birth is coming up, and there are plans to bring out a uniform edition of her novels. Taylor’s memoir is the perfect prologue to this celebratory year, providing a sympathetic and intimate picture of the author of such timeless classics as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Jim Crace

Much of my reading nowadays includes anything remotely Shakespearean. This has been a bumper year, including Fools and Mortals (HarperCollins), an absorbing novel by Bernard Cornwell that invents the life of Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, and Margaret Atwood’s wickedly wise Hag-Seed (published in paperback by Vintage). She casts The Tempest adrift in a prison and makes a magisterial case for the timeless, classless relevance of Shakespeare’s plays.

The work I most enjoyed and valued, in any category, was a first book by the economist Andrea Mays. The Millionaire and the Bard (Simon & Schuster) tells the gripping story of Henry Folger’s amassment of the First Folio and the establishment of his library in Washington, DC – a narrow focus, perhaps, but one that is not only fascinating about Tudor publishing but delves more broadly into Anglo-American relations and big business, obsession, privacy, marriage and money.

Peter Wilby

I suppose Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, A Life of My Own (Viking), is written by a member of the liberal elite (she is a former New Statesman literary editor), about the liberal elite, for the liberal elite. I do not recommend it to Nigel Farage since, aside from anything else, Tomalin is half-French. But no other book this year so moved and beguiled me. A life punctuated by glittering career success and personal disaster – a wayward husband’s death in his forties, a daughter’s suicide in her twenties, a son born with spina bifida – is recalled in translucent prose with honesty, modesty and a complete lack of self-pity.

Kezia Dugdale

The Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey – also known as Loki – wrote my book of the year. Part memoir, part manifesto, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (Luath Press) charts McGarvey’s life and the political life of his community in Glasgow’s Pollok housing estate. It covers addiction, abuse, depression, love and loss in raw, upsetting yet powerful detail. Somehow it retains hope and a sense of humour. Poverty Safari is a bold and ambitious work. No one in politics could fail to be shocked by it, or fail to see some light and guidance in its conclusions.

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

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

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