Monday, 12 December 2016

My top 15 books of 2016

For the last five years I've written down every book I read, partly for the obvious reason that otherwise I'd forget, but also because I'm lazy and it's a really easy way to keep a diary. Looking at the book I was reading on any given date gives me the context to recreate everything else I was doing then - who I was with; where I was etc...etc..

Anyway I read roughly 40-50 books a year so I've gone through this year's list and picked my top 15 in case you're stuck for some holiday reading or a Christmas present. In the order in which I read them....

1) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his son this short, emotionally-charged book looks at the history of American racism through episodes in the author's life. Inspired by James Baldwin and, I'd say, just as good as anything he wrote, it won the US National Book Award in 2015.

2) The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Coincidentally another National Book Award winner this is a history of the rediscovering of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" and about 100 times more interesting than that sounds. I knew nothing about the original poem or about the late medieval book hunters who saved such treasures from extinction. I'd have liked a broader discussion about the poem's place in the Renaissance - the recent historiography of which Greenblatt pretty much ignores - but it's fascinating on its own terms.

3) The Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim

I've been searching for years for a scrupulously fair guide to Israeli/Arab conflict in a field where so many books are written from a deeply partisan perspective. The best I'd found before was Ahron Bregman's "Cursed Victory" but that only covers more recent decades. The Iron Wall takes us all the way from the founding of Israel to the present day and shows compellingly how the remorseless logic of Israeli politics, combined with the weaknesses of Palestinian leaders has made peace impossible. It's difficult to come away from reading it with any hope that a solution can be found.

4) Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich 

The best book I read this year. One of the best books I've ever read. Alexievich's unique style involves weaving hundreds of interviews into a complex narrative that, in this case, tells the story of Post Soviet Russia. Individually the stories are interesting and moving but somehow she turns the collective into something equivalent to the best modernist literature. It was gripping, beautifully written (and translated) and also taught me more about Putin's success than any number of conventional non-fiction books. 

5) Silk Road by Peter Frankopan

An ambitious history of the world that takes central Asia as the centre of global movements over the ages. Taught me a huge amount about empires and civilizations that aren't mentioned in the English school curriculum including the incredible story of the Turkic Khazar tribe that converted to Judaism in the eighth century and allied with the Byzantine empire against the Persians.

6) King of the World by David Remnick

When Muhammad Ali died in June reading all the tributes inspired me to read this biography of the five years between 1962-1967 when Ali, at the peak of his career, refused the draft and was banned from boxing. As well as great set piece accounts of the key fights Remnick is particularly good on Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. I also read Thomas Hauser's more detailed biography of Ali which covers his whole career. But start with Remnick.

7) On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Sacks' autobiography, completed just before he died last year, offers brutally honest insights into his neuroses and paranoias as well as extraordinary descriptions of the creative process in action. He also crossed paths with any number of fascinating poets, statesmen and scientists which adds to the richness. 

8) Revolution 1989 by Victor Sebestyen 

A great history of the most important year of my life even though I didn't know it at the time (being 8). I knew the basic story of the fall of Communism but this added lots of detail about the differences between each of the Warsaw Pact countries. The complete bafflement of East German leader Erich Honecker as his world collapsed around his was particularly memorable. He even voted for his own sacking to keep up the tradition that all votes of the East German ruling council were unanimous.

9) Submission by Michel Houllebecq

It's impossible to tell how tongue in cheek Houllebecq is being, which is one reason why reading his novels is simultaneously so uncomfortable yet so fun. Narrated by a typically unpleasant misogynist it has a Muslim party winning the French presidency in 2022, helped by the socialists who are desperate to block the National Front. Weirdly it was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, garnering it even more attention than Houllebecq usually gets.

10) The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

Another controversial French novel - this one from a few years ago - written from the perspective of a Nazi officer explaining, and excusing, his horrendous crimes. It's about 300 pages too long (1,000 pages in total) and drifts off badly towards the end, but the central section, in which the narrator sets out his experiences on the Eastern front, is as good as any war literature I've read. Don't read it on the train into work though. More than once I found myself sitting in an early morning meeting thinking more about the horrors of Stalingrad than whatever I was supposed to be concentrating on.

11) All out War by Tim Shipman

I have absolutely no idea how Shipman was able to write a fluent, comprehensive, 600 page guide to the crazy events of our political summer in a few months but somehow he did and I'm grateful. Easily the best Brexit book and particularly nostalgic for me as I worked, in a previous life, with the leaders of the Leave campaign (albeit that I was and am a Remainer).

12) A Different Kind of Weather by William Waldegrave

I only read this because John Rentoul kept tweeting sections of it but it's one of the most honest political memoirs you'll find, describing the insane ambition that drives so many in Westminster from the perspective of someone who now realises how daft it all is. It's also extremely well written, which helps.

13), 14) and 15) Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I'm reading Harris' trilogy on Cicero at the moment and it's absolutely wonderful. Harris expertly weaves Cicero's real speeches in with speculation about some of the key events in the history of Rome. Also, as the tale of oligarchs who use whip up cheap populism to smash the key institutions of the state it feels pretty relevant.


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