This is the last time I’m ever doing New Year’s resolutions. My resolution for 2021 was to read less – not because I hate reading but to have more diverse pastimes. Instead, I have read more books than any year I can remember. Don’t blame it on COVID; blame it on inertia. Perhaps my resolution for this year should be to read more and hope that contrariness will kick in.
In any case, with 80-plus volumes shifted from the “to read” pile onto bookshelves, there was certainly plenty to choose from for this list. Once again, heavy and depressing topics make a strong showing, including both world wars and totalitarianism past and present. You can take a boy out of Eastern Europe, etc. Also once again, and contrary to what one could imagine about a creator of a political blog, not many political books make an appearance and not many written by right-of-centre or anti-left authors. While worthy, I find myself wishing I could have liked “Cynical Theories” or “The Madness of Crowds” more than I did. Perhaps reading Twitter and occasionally raving about this or that outrage de jour kills the pleasure of a conservative bestseller, the same way I refused to follow all my political friends and watch “The West Wing” when I myself worked in politics. There is such thing as too much of a good thing, which is why for pleasure and relaxation I tend to read about the Eastern Front or the Stalinist terror.
Let’s start with my three favourites in 2021, in no particular order, plus the best of what little I read of fiction. What follows, again in no particular order, are the other seventeen books I have enjoyed more than others, supplemented with “notable mentions”, my way of cheating this format, because it was really difficult to narrow it down to only 21.
“The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944” Rick Atkinson (2007)
Atkinson, a former WaPo journo, is arguably the best narrative historian of WW2, even ahead of Beavor and Hastings. He paints with words, relying heavily on experiences and impressions of ordinary soldiers – the war at the sharp end much more than the clinical and abstract boxes and arrows on staff maps. The Italian campaign was a grisly sideshow and a strategic mistake fought in some of the worst and least hospitable terrain under the mostly indifferent leadership and largely as a result of Churchill’s misguided Mediterranean obsession. What a waste. “The Day of Battle” is the second volume in the Liberation Trilogy, better in my opinion as the first one (Africa) and as good as the third (Northern Europe). Atkinson is now writing a trilogy about the American Revolution.
“Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” Arthur Herman (2012) – Capitalism delivered what no other combatant could possibly match. Great story, peopled with some fascinating if little known characters, the unsung heroes of the war effort.
“Hidden Hand: Exposing how the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World” Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg (2020)
A top choice not because beautifully written or told in a riveting manner, but because it should be read by anyone interested in international as well as domestic politics throughout the Western world. Hamilton is an old leftie but on communist China and its pernicious influence he’s dead right. Whatever you thought you knew, it’s actually worse in reality.
“Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia” Clive Hamilton (2018) – The book that started it all, and for Australian readers it should be read in conjunction with “Hidden Hand”.
“The Future is History: how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia” Masha Gessen (2017) – Many books have been written about Putin and Putinism; this is one is among the better ones. Sadly, Gessen, like most anti-Putin commentators (Applebaum, Kasparov and others) have been completely bamboozled by the “Russian collusion” hoax manufactured by the Clinton political machine. Two things can be equally true: it does them discredit but does not invalidate their work exposing Russia’s neo-tsarist ugliness.
“Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” Ronan Farrow (2020)
Reads like a thriller and I’m surprised it hasn’t yet been made into a movie. For me it was the biggest page-turner of the year. Though this was not Farrow’s intention, this candid view of how the system protects its own also sheds light on how the media-entertainment complex is such a cesspool of hypocrisy and why institutions are rapidly losing public trust. Someone even braver than Farrow needs to do for the Epstein saga what he did for the Weinstein one.
“The Man Who Died” Antti Tuomainen (2017)
Delightfully dark crime comedy from Finland, the country that really missed out on the recent (but arguably already passed) vogue for Scandi noir. A small businessman in mushroom export industry discovers he has been slowly poisoned and has only a short time to live, which he will spend trying to discover who wants him dead and why. Once you suspend your disbelief that the doctor would not feel obliged to notify the police that a crime was being committed, you enjoy the whole romp and reflections on life and death.
“A Song For The Dark Times” Ian Rankin (2020) – One crime writer who consistently continues to deliver the goods, year after year, for decades.
“Metropolis” Philip Kerr (2019) – A melancholy read, published posthumously (coincidentally with an introduction by the above-mentioned Ian Rankin) and therefore the last volume of adventures of the great German anti-hero Bernie Gunther.
AND THE OTHER SEVENTEEN:
“A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front” Winston Groom (2002)
Groom, the creator of Forrest Gump, and a former military man himself, is actually a very good – and very readable – war historian. This one provides the microcosm of hell by focussing on one small sector of the front.
“The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century” David Reynolds (2013) – How what happened between 1914 and 1918 has continued to shape our world, institutions and memory to this day.
“The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became A Religious Crusade” Philip Jenkins (2014) – Faith had a much bigger place in society a century ago. This is a fascinating look on one of the less noted aspects of the conflict.
“Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914” Frederic Morton (1989) – For a little while, Hitler, Trotsky, Stalin, Freud, Emperor Franz Josef, and Tito could have bumped into each other on the streets of one of the most fascinating of Europe’s old cities. Evocative look at the last year of peace, including those like Archduke Ferdinand who desperately tried to preserve it.
“Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories” Miranda Seymour (2013)
There was nothing predestined about Britain and Germany clashing twice in the twentieth century; in fact, the two powers had had a long history of cordial relations on the elite levels and could have been natural friends and allies. This is a melancholy but fascinating story of dozens of major and minor figures who had worked over four centuries to bring the northern countries closer together.
“The House by the Lake: Berlin. One House. Five Families. A Hundred Years of History” Thomas Harding (2015) – As the title says, a sad and twisted story of Berlin and the twentieth century through a succession of inhabitants of a lakeside house on the outskirts of the capital. History is what happens to people.
“Detroit: An American Autopsy” Charlie LeDuff (2013)
What politicians, in the wake of larger economic and social forces, have done to a once great American city. You read and weep with rage. LeDuff is a gonzo journalist in the best American tradition and a Detroit native who despairs at the corruption, mismanagement and neglect feasting on the corpse of Motown. Infuriatingly, there seem to be no answers and solutions, except perhaps trying not to keep re-electing Democrats. Not that that’s going to happen.
“Janesville: An American Story” Amy Goldstein (2017) – What happens to a small town when its main employer, an auto plant, closes its doors. Told in a more dispassionate but equally personal way.
“Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town” Nick Reding (2009) – More of the decline of the heartland, this time by way of agriculture rather than manufacturing, and of what fills the void when hope departs.
“They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper” Bruce Robinson (2015)
The Ripper was a major cultural figure of the Victorian era and a prominent Freemason who taunted the authorities (like him, mostly Freemasons) with his psychopathic atrocities. They didn’t catch him but did their best to cover up the truth and then erase him from history. Robinson, who is a leftie film-maker, writes with all the best rage against the establishment. Is it true? It’s certainly fascinating and makes a lot of sense.
“After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Belin Airlift” Giles MacDonogh (2007)
The consensus is that Germans got what they deserved and got it good and hard. Perhaps, which coincidentally makes for poignant and interesting reading. The story of the devastation and the occupation also makes the subsequent “German miracle” all the more remarkable.
“The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945” Jorg Friedrich (trans Allison Brown) (2006) – Major history of aerial war against Germany written from the perspective of its targets and victims. Translations tend to be dry and stilted but Brown does miracles to make Friedrich’s prose sing in English. A major achievement though can be numbingly repetitive after a while.
“Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust” Gotz Aly (2014)
Why indeed? Not religion or pseudo-science but economic envy against the best assimilated and the most successful Jewish minority in the whole of Europe. Fascinating work by a German historian that makes you see the past much clearer.
“The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics” David Goodhart (2017)
Goodheart is a British leftie who gets it. Our societies are increasingly divided between the educated and cosmopolitan Anywheres (25 per cent of the population), the more conservative and traditional Somewheres (50 per cent), and Inbetweeners (25 per cent). The former dominate the agenda and sneer at the rest, but at their peril, as recent experience from Brexit to Trump shows. Cultural issues matter and should not be dismissed by liberals if they want to see a successful, cohesive and happy society.
“Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” Johann Hari (2015)
Maybe, just maybe, the war on drugs is futile, in part because what we think we know about addiction is not actually true. I’m an agnostic – this is a big and complex issue: drugs can often be very destructive, but so can be the policies to deal with them.
“The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century” (2017)
I will leave it to the best blurb I’ve read, by Tyler Cowen: “This is the best book on the history of income inequality. And the central message is that the most significant reductions in inequality come through violence and destruction. Have a nice day!”
“Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East” Stephen G Fritz (2011)
Fritz is an unusual creature: an academic historian who is a readable writer. Sadly, you have probably never heard of this book as it has been published by a university rather than a mass market publisher. More’s the pity, because whatever you have read about the Eastern Front – and I have read a lot – you will learn new things here. This is very much a macro view of the conflict – strategy, tactics, above all logistics, rather than foxholes – and it makes very clear that while Germany came on several occasions very close to prevailing, it was a sheer miracle they did, considering the insurmountable obstacles before them.
“Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All” Michael Schellenberger (2020)
Schellenberger is an environmental activist of some renown and now a reformed leftie who writes with passion about the anti-progress and anti-human agenda of the green movement. A very important and accessible book that covers a lot of ground. Our planet needs care and protection, but it won’t be saved by socialism.
“Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist” Patrick Moore (2010) – More of a memoir than a wide ranging romp like Schellenberger’s, but nevertheless an interesting story of how one of Greenpeace’s founders became disillusioned with the extremism of the green movement.
“Riviera: The Rise and Rise of The Cote D’Azur” Jim Ring (2004)
Simply delightful little book about how the English have invented perhaps the world’s most famous tourist paradise and a playground for the rich – “a sunny place for shady people”. I never particularly had any desire to visit, but after Ring’s book I would love to.
“The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory” John Seabrook (2015)
How a group of producers – essentially a few Swedes and a Polish Jew – have transformed the world of popular music. Not a great fan of the last 20 years of Top 40 type music, but it’s a fascinating inside view on how hits are now manufactured by the same few names in business.
“Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music” Matthew Collin (2018) – Even less of my scene, but an interesting part-history, part-travelogue about a significant musical subculture, from former factories of Berlin to seaside clubs of Ibiza and beyond.
“The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War” Ben Macintyre (2018)
If it reads like a thriller, it’s because it is. Macintyre, who now specialises in this sort of popular espionage non-fiction, tells the story of perhaps the greatest of all Western agents inside the KGB, Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, a complex character who perhaps singlehandedly prevented the Third World War happening in the early 1980s.
“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” Robert Macfarlane (2012)
Even if you are not a hiker, the chances are you will be enchanted by this poetic mix of travel, history and nature, from one of Britain’s best practitioners of seeing the country on foot.
“Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution” Stuart Kells (2015)
Most of what you think you know about the rise and rise of Penguin is not so, in large part because Allen Lane, a pretty insufferable twat by the sounds of it, had written his two brothers out of the corporate history.
“What Good Are The Arts?” John Carey (2005) – Good question. Carey argues that it’s all an elitist wank (I’m paraphrasing slightly) since there are no objective ways of either assessing the greatness or discerning public value and benefit of any particular piece of part. Very provocative and challenging, whether or not you agree. And no, Carey is not a right-wing shock jock but a pretty ordinary professor of literature.
“Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Green Stick” Malcolm Muggeridge (1972)
Part one of a never finished trilogy of memoirs by one of Britain’s most famous journalists, chronicling his journey from middle class socialism to conservative Catholicism. The story takes us to the Soviet Union, where Muggeridge became one of only two reporters to break the Ukrainian famine to the world, starting his disillusionment with the left. Often bitchy, almost always entertaining.