You know the gig by the now: not the new books that came out last year but the books I got to read throughout 2019. There have been far too many and my New Year’s resolution is to read less, so you can look forward to “5 Best Books of 2020”.
The Best Three (in no order):
“Secondhand Time” Svetlana Alexievich (2013) – Alexievich is a stenographer rather than an author, allowing Russians from all walks of life to tell her their stories, set against the backdrop of the totalitarian past and the post-communist brave new world. The result is a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of suffering, loss, hope, grief, anger, courage, love and pain like nothing I have ever read before. This is not a work of politics or history but it’s perhaps the most important book you can read in order to understand Russia and the Russians today.
“Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero” Aileen Orr (2010) – this is not so much a great book but a great story, which sounds like fiction but is amazingly true, of an orphaned Persian bear adopted by Polish soldiers during their anabasis from Siberia through the Middle East to the battlefields of Italy, who was made a private in the Polish Army, behaved like a human, fought alongside his friends and lived up his life in retirement in Scotland. This is a real-life Paddington of the 20th century, Winnie to Pooh as written by George Orwell. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed (mentioned previously).
“Engel’s England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man” Matthew Engel (2014) – a cricket journalist decides to travel around all of England’s current and historical counties to light a candle for his dead son in every cathedral in the land. He writes with love and humour about every corner of the green and pleasant land, its sights, eccentricities, people, nature, past and present. Every country in the world should be lucky to have someone like Engel to be its traveler-laureate and make you see your home anew to fall in love with it all over again.
The Other Seventeen (again, in no particular order):
“Collected Works” A J P Taylor (1998) – Taylor has not written much in his academic career, but boy, did he write what he wrote, including most famously “The Origins of the Second World War”. There is no other historian who could produce such crisp, epigrammatic prose.
“Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour” Kate Fox (2004) – anthropologist explains what makes the English English. Charming.
“Crimea: The Last Crusade” Orlando Figes (2010) – one of the least remembered senseless wars finally gets the chronicler it deserves in the person of perhaps the best contemporary historian of Russia.
“Radical: My journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening” Maajid Nawaz (2012) – from Muslim Brotherhood to Liberal Democrats. We need more people like Maajid – if you’re not following his on Twitter, do yourself a favour.
“The Middle Class: A History” Lawrence James (2006) – a great history (albeit only really in the British context) of the greatest but much maligned class that created the modern world.
“Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators” Riccardo Orizio (2003) –Italian journalist has some of the most surreal encounters with human evil and megalomania.
“Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453” Roger Crowley (2005) – it’s the testament to Crowley’s skill that even though you know the ending this book reads like a page-turning thriller. Constantinople was bound to fall sooner or later but you will be surprised how closely run thing this was.
“Poland: A History” Adam Zamoyski (2009) – the best short history in English language.
“Frederick the Great: King of Prussia” Tim Blanning (2015) – a fantastic biography of a great personality but a shit human being. Blanning shows it can be done without losing sight of the either aspect.
“Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship 1915-1945” R J B Bosworth (2005) – there has been shelves filled with books about various aspects of life under Hitler, but this is the first popular history that goes beyond a mere biography of Mussolini. It’s Italy so its totalitarianism is oh so Mediterranean; still ugly but beats Germany and the Soviet Union.
“Without You, There Is No Us: My secret life teaching the sons of North Korea’s elite” Suki Kim (2014) – Korean-American journalist pretends to be an evangelical Christian in order to teach at the only non-government university in North Korea. Surreal and depressing.
“Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia” Catherine Merridale (2000) – I do like all the cheerful topics, don’t I? How Russians lived with death throughout the bloody 20th century and how the wars, carnage and communism shaped their attitudes to dying and remembering.
“Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies” M Stanton Evans (2007) – the best of revisionist history. Thanks to losers writing history, pretty much everything you think you know about McCarthy and his crusade is wrong (previously mentioned).
“Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky” Bertrand M. Patenaude (2009) – did you know that just before he was assassinated, Trotsky was in talks to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the Stalinist infiltration of the free world? Part biography, part thriller about the final years of the most fascinating of the Bolsheviks.
“Touched With Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific” Eric Bergerud (1996) – most war books focus on Guadalcanal and the subsequent island hopping all the way to Okinawa. This one, by contrast, looks at the American and Australian campaigns throughout the Solomons and Papua New Guinea, bringing to life the sheer hell of fighting in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world.
“Submission” Michel Houellebecq (2015) – so bleak, melancholy and un-PC; what’s not to love about the king of the contemporary French literature?
“Friends of the Dusk” Phil Rickman (2015) – apart from Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson, the only other crime fiction writer I still read who continues to consistently deliver with every new title. Added bonus: the unobtrusive supernatural element.
The Nineteen Notable Mentions:
“Teuton and Slav: The struggle for Central Europe” Hermann Schreiber (1961) – pretty balanced. Since then we have hopefully managed to successfully close the book on that millennium on waste.
“Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics” Conversations with Felix Chuev (1993) and “Oni: Stalin’s Polish Puppets” Teresa Toranska (1987) – rare first-person testimony of prominent Stalinists; mostly unrepentant, chilling and bizarre at the same time.
“Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs” Mark Lynas (2018) – the pioneer of anti-GMO activism sees the light. A valuable inside view about the damage the green activism is doing to the lives of people around the world, including those most in need.
“A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World” William Bernstein (2008) – pretty self-explanatory. Good, not great.
“Soldaten on Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs” Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (2012) – Brits and Yanks bugged their special POW camps for German officers, providing fascinating and until recently hidden treasure trove of first-person testimony.
“Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings” Owen Hatherley (2015) – great topic spoiled somewhat by the author’s left-leaning sympathies.
“Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress” Steven Pinker (2018) – Bill Gates’s favourite book, bashes both Trump and populism and the left and identity politics. Something here for everyone, and a good antidote for the gloom merchants who says everything is getting worse. Quite the opposite.
“Who Voted for Hitler?” Richard F Hamilton (1982) – not who you were always told.
“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965” William Manchester and Paul Reid (2012) – the last volume in the trilogy, written mainly by Reid after Manchester’s death and thus not as great as the predecessors though still a solid effort.
“Inventing the Victorians” Matthew Sweet (2001) – how the left misrepresented the 19th century to make themselves feel cooler.
“Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth” Bart D Ehrman (2012) – from a non-believer, an argument that Jesus is not a myth, whatever else he might have been.
“God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad” Charles Allen (2006) – a valuable perspective on the long history of jihadism in Arabia and South Asia; it’s really deja vu all over again.
“The History of England, Volume IV: Revolution” Peter Ackroyd (2016) – there is a good argument that more novelists should write history.
“Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that brought Nazi Scientists to America” Annie Jacobsen (2014) – and a lot of them, including some nasty pieces of work. The Soviets, of course, did exactly the same. Such are the moral conundrums of the Cold War.
“New Jerusalem: The short life and terrible death of Christendom’s most defiant sect” Paul Ham (2018) – the story of Anabaptists of Munster. Mixing communism with religion always ends in tears.
“Unfair Trade: The shocking truth behind ‘ethical’ business” Conor Woodman (2011) – not particularly shocking, but a good cautionary tale showing that good intentions are not enough and often achieve the opposite results.
“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life” Mark Manson (2016) – I expected a bit more from this runaway bestseller, particularly since Manson’s first, far less known, “Models”, is probably the best book about dating.
“All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin” Mikhail Zygar (2016) – an interesting, somewhat contrary perspective from a well-connected but independent Russian journalist, arguing that Putinism is a chaotic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along enterprise rather than a grand conspiracy.