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The best of the New Statesman 2018: books

Reviews and essays by John Gray, Rachel Kushner, David Olusoga and others

The highlights from this year’s New Statesman books coverage include some large and complicated lives, a deep dive into the politics of grime, a look at the meaning of “auto-fiction” and an untangling of the legacy of the financial crisis.

Dark-hearted dreamer: Lyndall Gordon on the double life of Kenneth Grahame 

In Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, Ratty, the Water Rat, shuns the Wide World beyond the Wild Wood. He instructs his friend Mole that anyone with sense would not go there. But Grahame himself did go there, and more: he shaped himself to the Wide World, as a new biography by Matthew Dennison relates. Contemporary opinion saw Grahame as “a man’s man”. Yet Dennison tells the story of a boy so damaged by a loveless upbringing as to be incapable of sustained adult attachment. 

How Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment refashioned the idea of what a novel could be

Published a little over 150 years ago, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a testament to his openness or resourcefulness, writes Leo Robson – and also a reflection of just what a long and traumatic journey he had taken to composing his first great novel.

Rachel Kushner on Cormac McCarthy’s existential westerns 

The reader, like the cowboys in the books, will eventually acclimate to the landscape as a totalising reality, where meditation and resistance are two components of one reality, a destiny of wandering the borderlands of the US and Mexico in the postwar 20th century.

How grime became king by K Biswas 

In his book on grime music, Dan Hancox explains that a distinct “Britishness” derives from the nation’s multicultural diasporas “intermingling with working-class slang and culture, rubbing up against each other” – their scenes driven by second- and third-generation migrant youth invested in occupying cultural spaces, having been shut out of political ones. 

Unenlightened thinking: John Gray on Steven Pinker

“For Pinker there are no bad Enlightenment ideas,” writes John Gray. “One of the features of the comic-book history of the Enlightenment he presents is that it is innocent of all evil. Accordingly, when despots such as Lenin repeatedly asserted that they engaged in mass killing in order to realise an Enlightenment project – in Lenin’s case, a more far-reaching version of the Jacobin project of re-educating society by the methodical use of terror – they must have been deluded or lying.”

The womb as battlefield: Suzanne Moore on Mothers by Jacqueline Rose

“I reacted to this book as a breeder and a reader. Actually, Rose’s book tore me apart, reminding me of things I would rather forget. Motherhood is not easy. It does not get easier, though I pay lip service to the old lie that it does.”

The agony and the destiny: Ray Monk on the life of Nietzsche

In the years immediately before, during and just after the Second World War, Nietzsche’s reputation in the English-speaking world was at its lowest, largely owing to the fact that his work had been appropriated by the Nazis. It has taken a while, but Nietzsche’s reputation as a philosopher has been fully restored. The story of his life is by turns inspiring, poignant and dispiriting, and it has never been better told than in this riveting book by Sue Prideaux, writes Ray Monk. 

Anna Leszkiewicz: Why is publishing suddenly obsessed with “rebel” women?

Individually, these books are on a harmless mission to engage even the most politically apathetic woman with concepts of feminism. Yet collectively, a patronising scene emerges. The tone is mainly uncritical. The same terms pop up again and again – the books are a “love letter” to or a “celebration” of women who are “heroic”, “role models”, and most of all, always “inspirational”. 

Henry Marsh on the history of the heart

The story of cardiology is one of dramatic technological progress and yet Sandeep Jauhar, author of Heart: A History, concludes that: “We have moved away from the emotional heart to a narrow focus on the biomechanical pump”, and this, he tells us, has hurt patients. The great American cardiologist Bernard Lown tells many stories of his patients who seemed to be dying from heart failure but were revived by being given hope.

Matrons and murderers: Lucy Hughes Hallett on the women who made Rome

As individuals the women of the imperial family had no direct power, but as matriarchs, and most particularly as mothers, they could aspire to influence. Over and over again, though, they found that chance, or the ingratitude of the sons for whom they had schemed and, in some cases, murdered, thwarted their hopes of queen-motherly happiness.

The post-crash world: Aditya Chakrabortty on how the 2008 crisis led to our current age of extremes

Hardly anybody saw it coming: not the financiers, not the economists, and certainly not the inflation-hawks, nor the rest of the political classes. Yet an event so widely unforeseen was almost immediately interpreted in a thousand different ways.

After autofiction: Chris Power on Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard 

Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard embarked on works blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography. Now the two series have come to an end, did they find the freedom they craved? 

David Olusoga: how the Second World War made Britain multicultural

“Pre-war Britain was far from ethnically or racially homogeneous,” Olusoga writes, reviewing Wendy Webster’s Mixing It. “But the exigencies of total war meant that the remote village pubs of rural Somerset became the favoured hang-outs of African-American GIs and that men from British Honduras (modern Belize) found themselves working as lumberjacks in remote parts of Scotland, living alongside people who had never seen black men.”

Margaret Drabble on how Annie Ernaux reinvented the memoir

Ernaux has inherited Simone de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation, and her agenda is feminist. Her latest work, The Years, already a best-seller in France, is a collective memoir: a powerful attempt to grasp history through “material” memory, and to describe the evolution of attitudes, events, and, as importantly, things.

Rowan Williams on why we should take JRR Tolkien seriously

The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a fiction about how desire for power – the kind of power that will make us safe, reverse injustices and avenge defeats – is a dream that can devour even the most decent.” In our current climate of political insanities and fascistic fantasies, Rowan Williams argues that it is a good time to dust off Tolkien’s legacy.

Erica Wagner on John Edgar Wideman and the bitter legacy of American slavery

Wideman’s younger brother Robert was sentenced to life without parole in 1976 for his participation in a murder; his nephew was murdered, and his own son stabbed a man to death at the age of 16 and is still in prison, more than 30 years later. As his new collection of stories is published, Erica Wagner looks at a life and a body of work that is haunted by sorrow, and by the legacy of slavery and the war that tore apart the United States.

Lost boy: the meanings and motivations of Michael Jackson

Ten years after the King of Pop’s death, Tom Gatti revisits Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson. “Like a daemon in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, a familiar whose form remains unfixed until its owner hits puberty, Jackson was in a state of constant transformation.”

Apocalypse soon: Anjana Ahuja on visions of the end of the world

In On The Future: Prospects for Humanity, Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, serves an updated menu of the ways in which we might, accidentally or not, find ourselves obliterated. Climate change, nuclear war or an asteroid strike could wipe out the planet as a viable habitat. An overpopulated world – there are projected to be nine billion citizens by 2050 – offers handsome prospects for starvation and pandemic disease. In a highly connected world run by machines, the consequences of cyber-attacks can cascade globally.