A silence descended on the Spectator USA library as our writers composed their Books of Year. It was the silence of deep thought, broken only by the clink of ice in tumblers, the gentle whoosh of the Juul pipe, and snoring from the armchair by the fire. At dawn, the editors unlocked the library doors. Our writers stumbled out, blinking in the bright sunshine. We gathered their shoddily written copy, and watched through the library windows as they gamboled in the snow. They looked like children, only with hip flasks and cigars.
Any gift can be a burden, and no gift is more potentially burdensome than a book. That’s why any books you give ought to be brief, unexpected and absorbing – the opposite, in other words, of homework. One of my favorites in this department is The Lowlife (Black Spring), Alexander Baron’s irresistible study of compulsion, betrayal and guilt in London’s East End.
What makes The Lowlife, aside from its vivid portrayal of a postwar London neighborhood in transition, is its remarkable narrator and protagonist, Harryboy Boas, an unattached Jewish war veteran, gambler and cogitator who is a bit too prone to press his luck. Having gone to the dogs in every sense of the term, Boas confronts the terrifying consequences of his excesses in a satisfyingly cinematic ending. First published in 1963 with a cover worthy of Saul Bass, the book has been back in print for awhile now, and this year I had the fun of renewing my longstanding acquaintance, to the usual great effect. Ecumenical bonus: it’s particularly suitable for Hanukkah.
Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-71 (Penguin) isn’t a 2018 book – it was published in 1965 – but one I reread every year. Blackly humorous and full of believable portraits, it depicts the decline and fall of Napoleon III’s decadent Second Empire and the ill-fated Commune that followed. Horne expertly transmits a dread at the fate that will befall the unlucky Parisians who live through a Prussian siege, only to face the Commune’s defeat.
A lesson in how quickly a ruthless enemy can overthrow a decadent power, The Fall of Paris possesses enough violence, sex, perfidy, female warriors, blind heroism and scheming to fill a season of Game of Thrones. In which case, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia are the Lannisters, the Bonapartists are the effete Martells, the Communards are the Sparrows, and Leon Gambetta’s resistance army are the Starks.
Amy Kaplan’s fascinating Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance (Harvard University Press) could hardly be more timely. Kaplan, who teaches at Penn, takes an American Studies approach to tracing the evolution of the US-Israeli relationship. Her focus is on what she calls the ‘cultural alchemy’ that has created a seemingly unbreakable bond between the United States and the Jewish state. The process was neither spontaneous nor inevitable. In the forging of that bond, Exodus, both Leon Uris’s potboiler and Otto Preminger’s movie of the same name, have exercised as much or more influence as AIPAC or all of Sheldon Adelson’s money.
As far as book years go – akin to dog years, but panting even harder as they run –2018 saw some bad books that reviewers were determined to shove down our throats: Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir (Random House), for example, an exercise in coy self-congratulation. For that matter, 2018 saw some good books that didn’t get the reviews they deserved: Ulrich Raulff’s cultural history Farewell to the Horse (Liveright), for instance, which should have been the lead review everywhere. Mostly, though, 2018 was like other years, with a handful of good books receiving good reviews.
John Carreyrou wrote the gripping Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (Knopf), a dogged piece of reporting about Elizabeth Holmes and the fraud that was her medical startup Theranos. Edward Carey produced the peculiar and fun novel Little (Riverhead) about Madame Tussaud. Simon Mawer gave us Prague Spring (Other Press), a non-fiction account of Czechoslovakia’s 1968 uprising against Stalinism. But there may be only one book I read this year that received enthusiastic reviews and yet deserved even more recognition: Emily Wilson’s new English translation of Homer’s Odyssey (Norton). ‘Tell me about a complicated man,’ it opens. And there’s even a dog, somewhere near the end, panting as he recognizes his long-absent master.
Some of the top American historians brought out the big guns this year. Jill Lepore has a new survey work, These Truths (Norton) and Joanne Freeman, despite an irredeemably twee Twitter presence, has a book on violence in Congress, The Field of Blood (FSG). As for me, I hold with Joseph Ellis’s latest, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us (Knopf), a series of meditations on episodes in early American history. Ellis remains convincing as he pairs James Madison with modern fights over the Constitution, Jefferson’s racial ambivalence with modern America’s. As the author, two decades ago, of a marvelous and unusually generous (in our age of damnatio memoriae) book on Jefferson, Ellis doesn’t allow his politics to keep him from making a rich, earnest yet subtle assessment of matters historical and political.
Meanwhile, Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp’s sophisticated The Second Creation (Harvard Belknap) throws a wrench in the logic of judicial originalism by demonstrating the flexibility of the Constitution’s meaning during its first years. Though Gienapp’s work is more exhaustive and less political than Ellis’s onslaughts on the conservative legal philosophy, both books form part of an increasingly concerted attempt by historians to wrest back the scepter of constitutional interpretation from the lawyers.
The Romanovs Under House Arrest (Holy Trinity) is a slim, elegant translation of the diary of Father Afanasy, a ‘palace priest’ brought in to pastor the Romanov family during their last period of relative freedom and tranquility in 1917. Under house arrest at the Alexander Palace, the Romanovs planted a garden, took snapshots, and attended church and confession. The children were recovering from the measles and had only just begun to appear outside the sickroom. None of them realized that the brief window for their escape – exile within Russia or asylum from Britain’s George V – had closed forever.
While reading Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women (Little, Brown), a group biography of female Abstract Expressionists like Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler, I saw Joan Mitchell’s ‘Salut Tom’ (1979) at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. How could an artist crippled by self-doubt and self-destructive behavior have confidently covered four huge panels, saying so much with so little?
Mary Gabriel explains this and much, much more in what must stand for some time as the definitive treatment of a time and place unique in American art. These women and the men they loved, bedded, married, fought, and competed against did indeed change art, as the book’s subtitle puts it, but Gabriel’s point is that they did it together. Refreshingly low on feminist cant, Gabriel’s depiction deftly charts the interplay among these artists, male and female, and the mutually influential atmosphere in which they worked. Oddly, the standout character is critic Clement Greenberg, a condescending and brutish man whom Gabriel dismisses quaintly as a ‘malign umbra’.
Few modern writers treated the art of smoking more eloquently than Elizabeth Bowen. She is peerless in the business of the cigarette – she was seldom photographed without one in hand – the cigarette as ice-breaker, class marker and, when men and women smoke together, metaphor for intimacy. She dedicated her intensely personal novel The Heat of the Day (1949) to her lover, Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie. The characters navigate London during the Blitz almost by the light of their cigarettes. In Bowen’s unearthly prose, it is a feeble light, one constantly in danger of being snuffed out by a city full of the ‘unknown dead’ shuffling through ‘the darkening glassy tenseness of evening’.
Four quick and very strong recommendations to make for noteworthy books from 2018, all nonfiction. First up, Harvard Medical School professor David Reich writes the foundational popular account of paleogenetics in his terrific book Who We Are and How We Got Here (Pantheon), studying the specific ways ancient the study of ancient DNA is re-writing our understanding of the human race – or human races. Likewise Andrew Friedman’s Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll (Ecco) advances our understanding, albeit of a slightly grubbier subject: the rise of the odd cultural phenomenon of the celebrity chef in the Seventies and Eighties, here told with an absolutely infectious panache.
Also infectiously interesting: Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers (Doubleday), the story of the mother-daughter team Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who created the famous Myers-Briggs personality test nearly a century ago – a surprisingly fascinating story. That’s also true for my last recommendation, Don’t Make Me Pull Over! by Richard Ratay (Scribner), a raucous and often hilarious history of the 20th century rite of passage, the family road trip.
I’m sorry, but I’ve just put down Sebastian Gorka’s Why We Fight: Defeating America’s Enemies – with No Apologies (Regnery) and I’m still struggling to catch my breath. Such sinuous sentences, such bulldozing logic, such roaringly righteous prose. Gorka is the literary equivalent of a Ford Mustang Bullitt. He guns the American engine.
Robin Osborne’s The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece (Princeton) was a brilliant account of the relationship between changes in artistic and political styles. Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism (Princeton) made light work of a long haul. The catalog to the Musée Picasso/Tate Modern exhibition Picasso ’32, edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume, was a fascinating biographical calendar of a key year in Picasso’s artistic development and personal life. Like everyone else, I couldn’t stop reading Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale) and Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic).
In history, Anthony Beevor’s terrifyingly lucid The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War Two (Viking) drove me to read Sir John Hackett’s I Was a Stranger (1977). Badly wounded at Arnhem, Hackett was hidden and nursed by a Dutch family through the winter of 1944, until he was well enough to be smuggled back across German lines. I read it in an elegant reprint by Slightly Foxed, which also reissued this year Something Wholesale (1962), Eric Newby’s account of how, before becoming a travel writer, he trained as a haberdasher.
On the great-books-in-any-year side, I read the collected journalism of Anthony Powell and Anthony Burgess, and reread yet again Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour.
Here’s a book that will literally stuff your Christmas stocking: The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt (Yale). This tome forms a splendid accompaniment to Yale’s release in 2016 of former ambassador to Great Britain Ivan Maisky’s spellbinding diaries. A product of great scholarly labors by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov, it sheds invaluable light upon the delicate negotiations between the wartime triumvirate of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill.
Anyone interested in World War II and its aftermath should also peruse Hilary Spurling’s new biography of Anthony Powell, Dancing to the Music of Time (Penguin). Powell’s bracingly hawkish Cold War politics are often overlooked (Maisky makes a cameo in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time as a vicious monkey, and Kenneth Widmerpool gets into deep waters with Soviet intelligence). Spurling, who has previously written a marvelous guide to Powell’s roman-fleuve, serves as the best cicerone to Powell’s life.
Other works that deserve mention are Camille Laurens’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (Other Press), a nifty study of Degas; Adrian Goldsworthy’s timely foray into the construction of walls, Hadrian’s Wall (Basic); Richard Brookhiser’s biography John Marshall (Basic), on the fourth and greatest chief justice of the Supreme Court; and George Morton-Jack’s Army of Empire (Basic), another fat volume that tells the tale of the key role that the 1.5 million men of the Indian Army played in World War I.
In the mood for one more book? Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success (Random House), a bleak, unflinching and humorous novel about the American leisure class.
Martha Rittenhouse Treichler, now in her 90th year, was a beautiful Church of the Brethren farm girl from Maryland who studied with the whale-like poet Charles Olson at the fabled proto-Beat Black Mountain College in the late 1940s. There, she met Bill Treichler, a gentle B-17 bomber vet from Troy Mills, Iowa, whose mother had attended 5th grade with Grant Wood, painter of ‘American Gothic’. Bill and Marth harmonized, in spite of Black Mountain composer John Cage’s discordant anti-notes, and would marry, raise five children, and be written up as the compleat homesteading family by Mildred Loomis, ‘grandmother of the counterculture’, in her volume Alternative Americas.
Martha’s new book of poems, Conversations with the Famous (FootHills), finds her considering aphorisms by Nancy Mitford, Leo Tolstoy, May Sarton, Sigmund Freud, John Ashbery (I never trusted him because of that missing ‘r’), and others, turning them over and around, extracting what is wise and true, and demolishing what is false, pretentious, fatuous, or just plain stupid – such as John Updike’s assertion that after the age of 40 one is not a poet but is merely ‘sifting through the leavings’. This volume, like Martha, is smart, wry, and delightful.
Ian Buruma is a liberal in the best sense of the word: open to the world, eager for new experiences, and catholic in his interests. In the mid-Seventies, he exchanged the ‘slightly dull surroundings’ of upper-middle-class childhood in The Hague for Japan. Amid great cultural ferment, Buruma fell in with experimental theatre artists, film impresarios (Akira Kurosawa included), and other riff-raff. A Tokyo Romance (Penguin) is a memoir of Buruma’s years as a gaijin, or foreigner, in a culture that simultaneously welcomes visitors with grand hospitality while constantly keeping them at a remove.
Buruma’s peerless skill for cross-cultural explanation has previously manifested in Murder in Amsterdam (about the assassinations of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn and artist Theo van Gogh), and The Wages of Guilt (a contrast of Germany’s postwar reckoning with that of its far less repentant Axis ally). The expat experience is full of frustrations, embarrassments and failures, but Buruma is blessed with a patience and self-deprecation that renders his gaijin experience highly readable. Learning to speak Japanese by impersonating his girlfriend, he writes, made him ‘sound a bit like a simpering drag queen’. A famous choreographer of Butoh, a style of traditional Japanese dance, observers that Buruma was like a ‘television’ in that he was ‘soaking up the lives of others, studying instead of creating anything, reflecting back, like a camera, rather than giving anything of myself’. Consider this fine book his belated creation.
Buruma’s laudable curiosity got him into trouble earlier this year when, as editor of the New York Review of Books, he chose to publish an essay by a Canadian DJ who had been accused by multiple women of violent sexual abuse. It was a daring editorial decision: a year into #MeToo, is it not of at least minimal interest to hear what one of these men has to say for himself? Simply for publishing the essay, Buruma became the most tragic victim yet of #MeToo excess. He was fired from the Review, guilty of nothing more than thought crime. Read this book and see how much our literary culture has pointlessly lost.
David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (Harper) is the most trenchant examination of creeping authoritarianism in 21st-century United States. Frum’s case for participatory citizenship has utility for people in all the places – Warsaw to Ankara, and New Delhi to Manila – where democracy is in peril. Ramachandra Guha’s achievement in Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 (Knopf), the culmination of decades of restlessly peripatetic research, can have few equals. Gandhi, along with Churchill, is the most written about personality of the 20th century. But Guha succeeds in discovering him anew for our own age. This will be the final word on Gandhi for a long time.
But what next for Guha? A comprehensive biography of Dr Ambedkar, the ‘untouchable’ lawyer who rose to become the chief drafter of India’s liberal constitution, is yet to be written. Guha might view his own Brahmin birth as a disabling factor for the job. But such an undertaking, I believe, would be a high act of patriotism by a scholar whose own service in probing and memorializing the Indian republic’s arduous journey will come one day to be regarded as historic.
Having witnessed the beginnings of the Syrian civil war up close, I was staggered by No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (Norton), Rana Abouzeid’s hauntingly vivid chronicle of the yearnings and defeats of ordinary people striving to preserve their dignity. Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans (Oxford) by Jasmin Mujanovic is the most refreshingly original book about that region in years. Mujanovic’s proposition that the unspooling dystopia in the Balkans could yield ‘genuinely reformed societies’ – if only the West, whose meddling he identifies as one of the sources of the current strife, would atone by backing the correct people – invites deep skepticism. Yet, as a survey of the political evolution of the place since ethno-religious nationalism destroyed Marshal Tito’s marvel of a union, Mujanovic’s book is unbeatable.
If reading a book is the equivalent of visiting the author’s house for dinner, then in Provocations: Collected Essays (Pantheon), Camille Paglia lays out her finest chinaware, a bounteous three-course Italian meal, and is liberal with the booze. Of course there are a couple of flat notes in a collection this generous. Consider a strange 500 words on Norman Mailer that is little more than 500 words on why Camille Paglia is so wonderful. But, like Mailer, it is almost impossible not to be fond of Paglia.
As these essays rumble through everything from David Bowie to the role of classics in modern education, one can always sense Paglia’s deep, formidable intelligence. Her respect for artistry, whether she is investigating poets, dancers or musicians, is a light that never goes out. Compared to the pickled Frankfurt School fanboys whose smelly little orthodoxies stink out humanities departments across the West right now, Paglia’s work is as welcoming and as fragrant as freshly laundered bed linen.
It’s been a few months since it made its initial splash – and even found its way onto Barack Obama’s summer reading list – but Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale) should not be overlooked. It’s brief, lucid, controversial – I didn’t agree on every point – and all in all a powerful diagnosis of the spiritual malaise proceed by globalization and advanced liberalism. Not light reading, but not heavy, either: Deneen is a real writer as well as a thinker.
Beyond that, Spectator readers will enjoy a brilliant scholarly bio of a great statesman and conservative, Lord Liverpool: A Political Life (Boydell) by William Anthony Hay. Liverpool served as prime minister at the climax of the Napoleonic Wars and during the all-important settlement of European affairs thereafter, while at home Catholic emancipation and the balance between agrarian and commercial power were at stake. His extraordinary, nearly 15-year ministry saw Britain through a most dangerous time of transformation.
I read A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Leadership and Lies (Flatiron) by James Comey in a day and a half on Kindle, and it was not a good investment of my time. The parts before Comey headed the FBI were substantially more interesting than the stuff about the Trump regime. If I could un-download it in exchange for credit to my mother’s Amazon account, I would.
Now I am refusing to buy any books until George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter comes out.
This season marks the centenary of the birth of Russell Kirk. The oracle of Mecosta, Michigan who chronicled America’s ‘conservative mind’ looked for the ‘permanent things’ in culture and custom. He also believed in the permanence of the spirit and the reverence of spectral form. The subject of ghosts was therefore a lifelong fascination, and Kirk did some of his most intriguing work as a writer of ‘ghostly tales’, which deserve rediscovery.
There was a time when Kirk’s haunted thriller, Old House of Fear, sold better than all of his other books combined. He also published many superb short stories in literary journals. These stories have been most recently collected in Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (ISI), which also includes Kirk’s 1962 essay, ‘A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale’.
‘Tenebrae ineluctably form part of the nature of things,’ he wrote there. ‘Nor should we complain, for without darkness there cannot be light.’ In such writing, Kirk was his own poltergeist or ‘rattling spirit’. He made critical noise to remind us of lost ties and the subterranean spirits of culture just below the rubble at our feet and the theories in our heads.
Almost all the books I’ve read this year have been by or related to the Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist Joseph Roth (1894-1939), whose biography I am writing, to be published in the UK by Granta Books. His novel The Radetzky March (Granta) is an acknowledged masterpiece, an elegiac epic tracing the fall of the Habsburg Empire and the outbreak of World War. One As we leave behind the centenary of the Armistice and reflect on what followed, I suggest turning to Roth’s less well known 1920s’ heimkehrerromane novellas such as Flight Without End and Zipper and His Father. They offer a tender, startlingly insightful examination of the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers’ uneasy homecoming to a febrile central Europe in which the seeds of the next war were already germinating.
Between my Roth reading I’ve been savoring Paul Willetts’s highly enjoyable new biography King Con (Crown). Willetts’s usual blend of deep research and lively storytelling sucks you straight into this picaresque tale of the conman Edgar Laplante, or Chief White Elk as the shameless would-be Native American styled himself while swindling his way across the USA in the Jazz Age. With every twist the story of Laplante’s life grows harder to believe but, unlike the tall tales he told his credulous victims, it is all true.
I read very little new work. The only new fiction I can unreservedly recommend from 2018 is The House on Vesper Sands, the second novel from Paraic O’Donnell (Weidenfeld and Nicolson). His first, The Maker of Swans, demonstrated that he is the first original voice in Irish fiction for many years – a remorseless blend of Irish ‘Big House’ and Gothic romance. He developed this further in The House on Vesper Sands, to explore the mind of a young woman, near illiterate, asking ‘what will become of my soul?’ The House on Vesper Sands is not only spooky, but profoundly shocking to our modern morality, our sense of compassion, and the relevance of life itself.
‘J’ai toujours hai le travail,’ said John Law in 1720, displaying the banker’s penchant for charming fabrication, ‘I’ve always hated work.’ The opposite was of course true. As James Buchan shows in John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century (MacLehose), his seriously entertaining biography of the 18th-century Scottish financier, perhaps the only thing Law preferred to work was gambling.
Lucky for Law, work was gambling, in the sense that high finance always is. In following Law’s peripatetic career, we are taken from the tenements of Edinburgh, to the dueling fields of London, to the court of Regency France, to the shores of French Mississippi – whose settlement Law funded through then-novel paper money – and many places in between. Buchan’s great achievement in this book is to make arcane financial arrangements digestible to a pecuniary nitwit like me. That he does it with such verve earns this book not just a place in the annals of financial history, but in those of biography, too.
For readers enamored with espionage, Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor (Crown) is this year’s offering not to miss. Its billing as ‘the greatest espionage story of the Cold War’ may be a bit of an overstatement, yet a small one. Macintyre, an acclaimed popular historian of intelligence, for the first time tells the full story of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB colonel whose dramatic 1985 defection to the United Kingdom proved a turning point in the Cold War – though hardly anybody knew it at the time.
With the help of British spies, including ones who handled Gordievsky since MI6 secretly recruited him in 1973, when the rising KGB officer was stationed in Denmark, Macintyre writes with verve and a level of detail that makes his book a recommended read for security professionals as well as the general public. The author grasps how espionage works in the real world rather than movies, and it shows. The depiction of Gordievsky, a second-generation Soviet spy whose brother died in KGB service, is moving and vivid, a rare non-fiction portrayal worthy of a fine spy novel. The Spy and the Traitor demonstrates that, every once in a while, one spy indeed can change history. The traitor in the title is the CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, whose secret work for the KGB paralleled Gordievsky’s betrayal of his own service, so Macintyre’s book should be of interest to American readers as much as British ones.
If you ever took a survey course on Western art, you probably encountered Giorgio Vasari’s who’s-who of the Renaissance art world, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari’s collection of biographies, the founding text of art history, helped create such unfashionable notions as creative genius, Art with a capital ‘A’, and great white men. Modern scholars have found that Vasari’s journey from Cimabue and Giotto to Michelangelo and Raphael contains more than its fair share of half-truths and uncorroborated (but saucy) gossip. Nevertheless, its deep fount of data on both the artists and their creations has been essential to historians since the day of its first publishing. In The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art (Norton), Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney biograph the biographer. Digging into Vasari’s own painting career, Rowland and Charney give us an eminently readable and adroit examination of not only the man, but also the artistic, societal, and political milieux that formed both him and his Lives.
Last month, David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ from 1972 sold for $90.3 million at Christie’s, setting a record for most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction. Back in 2011, a nude by Lucian Freud owned that distinction, when it was sold by Sotheby’s for a measly $29 million. Francis Bacon was dead in 2013, but that year a 1969 triptych by him, coincidentally a triple portrait of his friend Lucian, sold for $142.4 million, then the biggest price-tag for any work of art ever. It might be hard to believe that these painters were all once hard-up and unknown, honing their crafts in bombed-out postwar London. But this is where Martin Gayford begins Modernists & Mavericks (Thames & Hudson), his history of ‘the London Painters’, a book that positions Gayford as a modern Vasari.
Gayford, chief art critic for the London Spectator, has developed close relationships with many of the artists discussed herein; he even wrote a book about the protracted experience of sitting for the famously laborious Freud. We learn much about the lives and art of Bacon, Freud, and Hockney, often from first-hand testimony, but also see how less famous luminaries like Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Leon Kossoff, Bridget Riley and Euan Uglow made important and individual contributions to British painting. Gayford’s gripping prose and sensitive critical eye show this ‘school’ to be endlessly various, and bonded, crucially, by a shared insistence on the imaginative potential of paint.
The book I enjoyed most this year was The Souls of Yellow Folk (Norton), Wesley Yang’s collection of thoughtful, beautifully written essays that explore the dark and conflict-ridden landscapes of our modern conceptions of masculinity, race and intellectualism – and without devolving into inelegant sloganeering. I also enjoyed Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale), an incisive and provocative contribution to anti-progressive thought.
The book I disagreed with most stimulatingly was Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (Viking). Stimulating disagreement is far better than bored, disgusted or contemptuous disagreement. Pinker’s defense of modern ‘progress’ forced me to nod on some occasions and to frown, splutter or grit my teeth on others. Once I had finished, I was ready to compose a book-length response called Enlightenment No, and while that may never happen, a book that is so engaging has to be respected.
One of the most timely books to emerge this year was Frantz Fanon’s Alienation and Freedom (Bloomsbury Academic), translated by Steven Corcoran. Fanon was the great Martinique-born psychiatrist who formulated the most comprehensive and authoritative understandings we have of the effects of colonialism, compiled mainly from his observations of its workings in the Caribbean and the Algerian civil war.
‘Colonization’ is a word we hear too much of these days, in all the wrong contexts, with all the wrong resonances. Rightfully or otherwise, colonization is the force that has made our civilization. That history, through residual guilt – may now be generating the undoing of civilization. Victors and victims alike have an interest in comprehending each others’ needs and understandings, if only to avoid repeating the patterns. Fanon can still help us here.
I’m currently halfway through the first English translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978 (University of Notre Dame). This, the first of a two-part memoir, is a delicious addition to the author’s stark and magisterial accounts of the life of a writer under Soviet tyranny, and the years of imprisonment he suffered. It describes Solzhenitsyn’s exile in the West following the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. The author seeks to build a temporary home-from-home, while remaining the most famous man in the world.
Perhaps you want a break from Donald Trump this holiday season – and who could blame you – but if not there are enough good books about the President to stuff even the biggest stocking. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (Henry Holt) and Bob Woodward’s Fear (Simon & Schuster) are both remarkable works of reportage and make you feel as if you’re inside the Oval Office. Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin (Dutton) is as well written as you’d expect from a Vanity Fair contributor and paints a convincing picture of the President as a creature of the mafia (if not fully making the case on Russia). Rick Wilson’s Everything Trump Touches Dies (Free Press) is just great fun. The Case Against Impeaching Trump (Hot Books) by the always clever Alan Dershowitz is a necessary corrective to the assumption by Trump’s enemies that all this can end only one way. If you don’t want a Trumptastic Christmas, or Hanukkah, then escape with 2017’s Paris in the Present Tense (Overlook), the latest by Mark Helprin, and as haunting and beautiful as his other novels. And if you really need to get away, the Chinese writer Cixin Liu has reissued the novel Ball Lightning (Tor) because of the sensation caused by his Three Body trilogy. Liu may be the most important living science fiction author. He writes ‘hard science fiction’ and he the possibilities he conjures for the future of humanity are stunning – almost enough to make you forget who’s in the White House.