We asked our writers what books, fiction and non-fiction, they had enjoyed in 2021.
In non-fiction both Brexit and the pandemic feature and, interestingly we have two reviews of Why Germans do Better by John Kampfner. We also had one last year so this is clearly and important book for our writers. There are two books on the lessons we can learn from indigenous and tribal people who have cared for the land and the environment in a holistic way for millennia, which suggests a shift away from a western-centric view of how the world is and could be. The potential for non-Western thinking is underscored by March of Folly, which enumerates centuries of failure and their common errors. Scotland 2070 allows us to turn our attention northwards for environmental solutions but remaining close to home.
War in the Middle East also features in the selection, reminding us that in amongst political and moral failure are pockets of hope and resistance, while Out of Thin Air offers life (and running wisdom) from Ethiopia.
If there is an overarching theme to the non-fiction selection, it is a desire to understand the world from perspectives other than our own.
In the fiction selection, women are the heroines. Their lives are dominated by bad sex or marriage, both of which are exploitative, unfulfilling and/or boring. Their struggle for personal, intellectual and bodily autonomy unconstrained by social mores and men’s demands or exploitation, is the thread that runs through them all – except a Gentleman in Moscow.
The novels relate to different social classes races and continents yet, as the year ends with the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell for sex trafficking, while those men who abused the girls have yet to be prosecuted, these books are a timely reminder of the enduring risks all women and girls face. The novels are not wholly bleak. There is much humour, lightness, resilience and solidarity.
We end the selection with a book for children – Nick Cave’s The Little Thing a giggle-out-loud philosophical treatise for youngsters and their grandparents.
Spillover by David Quammen
Reviewer: Andy Brown
This has to be the single most important book anyone has written about the pandemic. Not least because it came out before Covid-19 even started. Quammen takes us through the evidence about how diseases are crossing over from animals to humans with increasing frequency and why. Along the way, he reveals the evidence that Aids was one of those diseases and that it made the transition a hundred years ago in Africa.
It turns out that driving logging vehicles into remote rain forests is an ideal way of enabling new diseases to infect humans and that international air travel is the ideal way of spreading them. In other words, the pandemic hasn’t been a bit of bad luck that just happened. It is a consequence of the environmental catastrophe we are inflicting on the planet. Not the ideal book if you are looking for a bit of Christmas cheer and some wishful thinking. Essential reading if you want to understand the future and how increased frequency of outbreaks of deadly disease will be a costly part of it until we learn to live in harmony with the environment.
Paperback, 592 pages. Published September 2013 (first published 2012) by W. W. Norton Company.
Why the Germans do it better: notes from a grown-up country by John Kampfner
Reviewer: Anthony Robinson
Germany’s transformation from the ravages of nationalism, dictatorship and war to a “bulwark of decency and stability” and Europe’s wealthiest and most reluctantly powerful nation is the subject of Kampfner’s book.
Which other nation could have quietly absorbed 16 million impoverished cousins from the soviet east with reconstruction paid for by a 5.5 percent ‘solidarity surcharge’ (Solidaritätszuschlag or Soli for short) on income tax over 18 years? Or a taken in a million refugees in 2015/16 under Angela Merkel?
Kampfner suggests that in Britain we often fear to look realistically at ourselves in case we’re accused of declinism. This book, perhaps, is about how Germans are similarly reluctant to examine what their country has become, but for the totally opposite reason. There is a contrast with Britain’s recent embarkation on a similar journey to that of Germany, but in the other direction. After reading it one gets the impression that we are two nations passing like ships in the night.
Why the Germans Do it Better by John Kampfner
Reviewer: Edward Mitchell
From a grouping of city states 150 years ago, Germany has emerged through its turbulent recent history as arguably the leading state in Europe, “a bulwark for decency and stability”.
The author’s experience as a political commentator on Germany is obvious. Seeing the nation through a political lens has resulted in a somewhat dry impression of Germany immediately following World War II, when this country transformed itself into something close to a model democracy.
Barely a month ago, Angela Merkel stepped down as chancellor (a position she had held continually from 2005), and I will be very keen to see what new trends – political, social and economic – emerge under new leadership, for example Germany’s role in the EU and in the wider Europe and how the country manages the recent influx of refugees. In his preface, Kampfner contrasts Germany’s post-war history strongly with the systemic failures of British politics, as seen in the handling of Brexit and the pandemic.
Two minor issues. First, Chancellor Merkel is perhaps excessively eulogised, though her legacy is assured and well deserved. Second, while business and the economy are well covered, I would have liked to see more on Germany’s lead in technology and engineering: its Vorsprung durch Technik. Overall, a most impressive book.
Paperback, 315 pages. Published February 2021 by Atlantic Books.
Out of thin air: running wisdom and magic from above the clouds in Ethiopia by Michael Crawley
Reviewer: Salli Martlew
My friend in Ethopia said, “I don’t understand you British. You are so insular yet you thrive in team games like football. We Ethiopians on the other hand, are very sociable yet we win at individual long-distance running”. In this, and so many other respects – language, food and calendar – Ethiopia considers itself exceptional.
Michael Crawford is a Scottish anthropologist and runner. For his doctorate, he immersed himself in the training of Ethiopian long-distance runners, learning the Amharic language whilst living, travelling and training with them the better to understand more about this exceptionalism.
Running zig-zag across different terrains and altitudes, leading the line, absorbing the rejuvenating space of the forest, Crawford gradually takes on this mantle of mysticism which enables runners, both Christian and Muslim, to rise above any hurdle such as injury or losing a race as they set their face to the wealth and fame of the future, producing medal winners like Haile Gebrselassie, Olympic gold medal winner and world champion.
An interesting and enlightening read on so many levels. You don’t have to be a runner to enjoy this book.
Hardback, 253 pages. Published 2020 by Bloomsbury.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
Reviewer: Natalie Bennett
Academia and policymakers in the global north are slowly, faltering, trying to work their way towards ‘systems thinking’, moving away from the reductionism that has driven our science and thinking for centuries, the treating of the living world as a machine that can be tinkered with at will, with disastrous results.
In Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Deakin University’s Tyson Yunkaporta demonstrates that joined-up thinking – a consistent, coherent way of understanding the world and humans’ place in it – can be found in indigenous thinking from Australia. This thinking reflects tens of thousands of years of human development across a continent of diverse but interlinked societies.
But, Yunkaporta doesn’t just draw on his native land’s thinking – he also ‘yarns’ with indigenous thinkers from around the world. In 224 highly readable pages, there’s an entry point to an entirely new way of looking at the global systems of environment, economy and community.
Paperback, 224 pages. Published September 2019, Text Publishing.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycle by Dervla Murphy
Reviewer: Paul Bright
In a year in which Afghanistan, the Taliban, and women’s rights featured heavily in the news I decided to reread the travel story of an Irish woman who, at the age of 32, set out to accomplish her long-held secret ambition to cycle from Ireland to India.
She set out in the harsh winter of 1963, a lone woman (with a small revolver in her saddle bag) to cycle through Europe and the Middle East to Asia.
Dervla cycled at a time and describes a world that was very different. Afghanistan was a country that had yet to be occupied by foreign forces. Her breath is often taken away by the beauty of the country. The book’s dedication reads:
“To the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan with gratitude for their hospitality with admiration for their principles and with affection for those who befriended me.”
Paperback, 233 pages. Published 1987 (first published 1965). The Overlook Press.
Scotland 2070 – Healthy Wealthy Wise: an ambitious vision for Scotland’s future without the politics by Ian Godden, Hiliary Sillito, Dorothy Godden
Reviewer: Charlie McCarthy
This timely book explores the big issues facing Scotland and those who live and trade with Scotland over the next 50 years. Global heating, the environment, the country’s energy needs and covid all will have an influence on the Scottish economy over the medium-term future.
Superbly researched and written, the authors paint an optimistic future for this part of the UK. They lay down the gauntlet to the Scottish people to face up to the challenges ahead and embrace a zero carbon future and look for the opportunities the green new deal is dangling in front of us.
“The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stone and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil.”Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Minister for Oil for Saudi Arabia.
We should all remember this when we contemplate our journey to net zero.
Paperback 218 pages. Published by College Publications 2020.
Brexit Unfolded: how no one got what they wanted by Chris Grey
Reviewer: John Cole
The author has a heavyweight academic reputation, having previously been a professor of organisational studies, at Cambridge University and Royal Holloway College. The book is comprehensive, dispassionate, highly informed and insightful – and very readable.
Three themes quickly emerge: Brexit was not clearly defined at the time of the referendum; efforts to define it quickly showed how out of their depth ministers were; and, the process of leaving the EU was incredibly rushed, possibly through fear of the vote being overturned.
Both May and Johnson chose to ignore experts and policy was driven by the European Research Group (ERG). In consequence, the government chose solutions that had no prospect of functioning well in the real world. A depressing element of the book is the consistent failure of cabinet and the ERG to learn from experience. Policy-making had become a matter of faith.
Politicians and the political system do not emerge well from this book. The narrative is littered with examples of poor judgment on the part of May, Johnson and other ministers but also include the opposition – Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘Lexiter’, and Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrat’s ‘Revoke article 50’ stance in the 2019 election. Grey suggests two heroes – Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn.
The final chapter of Grey’s book is a thought-provoking section headed ‘The Politics of “Authenticity”’ about the culture wars that Brexit, if it did not initiate, greatly ratcheted up. In years to come, if historians are wishing to understand and write up Brexit in the period after 2016, they will find Chris Grey’s book an invaluable resource.
Paperback, 320 pages. Published in June 2021 by Biteback Publishing.
From Beirut to Jerusalem: A Woman Surgeon with the Palestinians by Dr Swee Chai Ang
Reviewer: Qaiys Abu Qaoud
To say that Dr Swee Chai Ang is one of the most awe-inspiring women I have heard of is an understatement. Her book is testament to her strength and altruism and shines a light on a much-forgotten humanitarian crisis.
First published in 1989, charting her experiences in war-torn Lebanese refugee camps, Dr Ang’s tale is just as poignant and relevant today when over seven million Palestinian refugees are still displaced. Her first-hand experience during the Sabra and Shatila massacre is harrowing and pertinent and spurred her on to establish the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.
The book is easy to read and cuts through the political fog that often shrouds the complex issues surrounding the occupation of Palestine, making it a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the atrocities that are still unfolding to this day.
Kindle version, 346 pages. Published July 2007 by Islamic Book Trust.
Tribal People’s for Tomorrow’s World by Stephen Corry
Reviewer: Brian McHugh
Indigenous people number about 370 million individuals and constitute the largest ‘minority’ in the world. Corry takes the time to dissect his use of ‘tribal’ and ‘indigenous’ and to draw attention to the layers of meaning that these words have for users and for labellers. He takes the reader on a world tour of indigenous people, exploring the problems of land and resource theft, as well as government protection and international law.
With many indigenous people standing up for climate issues and taking on governments in court, whether in the US or in the Amazon, I was struck by the level of persecution and attacks on minorities defending what was valuable to them, often at the cost of their lives.
This book challenged me on many fronts: my own knowledge or ignorance of tribal peoples; the energy and efforts that many indigenous people have to go through to protect the environment on everyone’s behalf; and, when we should be learning as much as we can from tribal peoples who have lived with nature for generations about adaption and mitigation, why we are choosing to continue to exploit their resources and assume superiority.
Paperback, 346 pages. Published by Freedom Press in 2011.
March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman
Reviewer: Ian Kinsey
Thriller writers, action film producers and real-life conspiracy theorists would have us believe secret societies, international conglomerates or governments conspire to manipulate global events. Historian and Pulitzer Prize author Barbara W Tuchman debunks those assumptions with her trademark historical narrative prose and strong attention to detail.
March of Folly lays bare a perhaps not so shocking truth: it’s collective stupidity and folly that determines the outcome of significant historical events. Tuchman drills down and attempts to answer, in breath taking detail – why didn’t the Trojans just burn the wooden horse? Did the intransigent doctrine of the renaissance popes provoke the protestant secession? What events led to the most powerful empire of its era losing its greatest possession; the American colonies? (And, two centuries later) how did America fall victim to a similar humiliation in Vietnam?
Are governments today continuing the march of folly?
Paperback, 502 pages. Published by Random House in February 1985.
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Review by Salli Martlew
It is 1928 when we meet Matilda Simpkin, in this light, intelligent book. Mattie, as she is known, is a well-educated and forthright woman, now in her middle years.
Women have the vote. It has been hard won by suffragettes like Mattie – demonstrating and heckling, and then being imprisoned; beaten and force fed when they went on hunger strike. Mattie full of energy and determination was in the midst of the movement, but what now? “What do you do when you’ve changed the world?”
And so the story begins as Mattie takes on the self-imposed challenge of awakening the talents and energy of young women in North London. Yes, she makes a difference but not always in ways she expected. The past has brought her to the present – the future becomes something quite different and far more personal.
Paperback, 336 pages. Published December 2018 by Black Swan.
On Black Sister’s Street by Chika Unigwe
Reviewer: Qaiys Abu Qaoud
On Black Sister’s Street is a powerful post-colonial exploration of love and loss, sisterhood and friendship, and family – be they families of origin or chosen ones. Set between Nigeria and the seedy underbelly of Amsterdam’s red-light district, this moving novel charts the struggles and successes of African women working as prostitutes.
The Nigerian-born Igbo author, Chika Unigwe, offers a refreshing voice in fiction and her debut novel De Feniks was the first book of fiction written by a Flemish author of African origin.
This underrated story gives a voice to a forgotten sector of society and does so with heart-wrenching and poignant clarity. It will make you laugh, cry, and even turn away in horror and disgust, but thanks to Unigwe’s beautiful prose and intricate character development, you won’t be able to stop until you know the fate of these women, and will probably find yourself willing them along as they navigate the multi-faceted world that Unigwe creates.
Kindle version, 306 pages. Published April 2007 by Random House.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Reviewer: Paul Bright
In June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov was escorted out of the Kremlin, taken across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol. A Bolshevik tribunal had convicted him of being an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’. He may have received more severe punishment, but a poem published in his name resulted in the reduced sentence of indefinite house arrest in the plush hotel although sadly it was not to be in his own suite there.
For decades, stripped of the trappings of his former life, he was confined within the walls of the hotel. The count had read that if a man does not master his circumstances, he is bound to be mastered by them.
In the metropole, the count was able to establish relationships that helped him to adapt to, and ultimately master, the circumstance in which he had found himself.
Paperback, 462 pages. Published March 2019 (originally published 2016) by Penguin.
In Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Reviewed by Stella Perrott
In the need of a bit of light relief but being without a television, I read In Pursuit of Love. It relieved the covid slump, perfectly. The characters are nationalistic and snobbish with a strong sense of entitlement. They, especially Linda and her family, are often outrageous, weak, self-centred, superficial and occasionally cruel.
Middle-class values of education, hard work, fidelity and sexual continence are mercilessly skewered and Linda’s ambitious well-meaning husbands are unremittingly dull. Meanwhile “thin end of the wedge” landed gentry Uncle Mathew, a patriarchal bully, whose “favourite hobby, that of clocking Germans” (when not hunting his children across the fields) provides many outrageously funny moments.
The novel is a sparkling, glittering comedy, cleverly written. Yet, underneath all the glamour and Mitford’s upbeat tone, it is a dark novel. Published in 1945, cruelty, war and death are a constant, while indifference and boredom are major drivers for action. Mitford’s efficient dispatch of Linda and Fabrice at the end of the novel (and of Moira earlier) shows a reluctance to tackle the implications of Linda’s behaviour as anything other than a comedic resource. What is bright and sparkling at the beginning comes close to being hard and brittle, at the end, much like the characters in the novel.
Paperback, 192 pages 1992 (first published 1945) by Penguin Books Ltd.
When Paris Sizzled by Mary McAuliffe and Effi Briest by Theodore Fontane
Reviewer Michael Hindley
To compensate for the year’s restrictions on travel I have been reading and re-reading European histories and literature, especially French and German. Two contrasting books have impressed me.
Mary McAuliffe’s When Paris Sizzled, as the title implies, takes the reader through the roaring 1920s when Paris was the centre of the fashionable world and a magnet for those few with connections, resources and talent. The book is poignant at the moment, as the year ends with Paris in lockdown and Josephine Baker, the fabulous black cabaret star, civil rights activist and resistance heroine, being granted France’s highest civilian honour.
My other book of the year was my re-reading of the German author, Theodor Fontane’s late 19th century tragedy Effi Briest. Effi is a lively teenager who is persuaded to make an ‘advantageous match’ to a rising government official. Effi finds her marriage in the provinces dull but her youthful energies are captivated by strange new environment and a romantic affair, the discovery of which leads to her social ostracising. A very sad tale but beautifully and sympathetically told.
When Paris Sizzled:Paperback, 328 pages. Published 2016 by Rowman and Littlefield.
Effi Briest : Paperback, 228 pages. Published in 2000 by Penguin Classics.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Reviewer: Annabelle Levins
The Booker Prize winning novel Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrantly written, feminist narrative that weaves together the stories of a number of black women, set in past, present and future Britain. It uses an unconventional structure with a disregard for accepted punctuation but flows as though written in normal prose.
Evaristo creates tangible characters, each with differing backgrounds but all with obvious and not so obvious connections with one another. This polyphonic novel takes a dynamic approach to black British womanhood whilst going far beyond each individual’s social identity markers: delving into their own histories to understand how, in adulthood they move through society in the ways that they do.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking to read a joyous, fun, sexually and racially diverse book, which addresses some of the key issues of our time: gender identity, education, racism and social media.
Hardcover, 453 pages. Published May 2019 by Hamish Hamilton.
The Little Thing by Nick Cave
Reviewer: Jimmy Andrex
A book for toddlers. Written by a former heroin addicted wild man of rock. What are the chances?
I first heard The Little Thing on 6 Music. It being dinnertime, I expected an invigorating techno barrage but instead, what came out was a rather exasperated voice repeatedly asking “What am I?”
That the Bad Seeds and former Birthday Party frontman could produce something so entertaining yet so profound is a thing of genius. Cave’s childlike drawings are devoid of all guile and self-conscious cuteness. It’s so simple yet capable of sticking in a child’s head forever.
Upon exposure to my two-year-old granddaughter, it immediately garnered the sort of review children’s authors crave. “Again! Again!” She’s now memorised it.
The Little Thing is worth its weight in gold because, I contend, reading it to a toddler will make that child smarter. Best of all, it’ll make them smile.
Illustrated hardback. Published in November 2021 by Narayana Press.
(Available only online).