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I have reached the age when it seems important to give attention to the books I ought to have read long ago but skipped past. As an American born in the middle of the 20th century, I’m drawn to the literature of that era. Lately, I have been reading for the first time John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin, $18), published during the Great Depression.
Of course, I have seen John Ford’s gripping interpretation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. It’s a great movie. In my estimation, the novel itself is also a masterpiece. Of course, it is necessarily a product of its time, saturated with a sentimental depiction of those dispossessed by massive economic upheaval. Steinbeck makes no effort to disguise his sympathies: he is with the plain folk and against the bosses. This is the world of the Old Left, where distinctions between good and evil are crystal clear. In our own morally confused age, things appear somewhat more complicated. Yet perhaps I am myself given to sentiment. I find Steinbeck’s depiction of that era utterly compelling.
Margaret Thatcher was the dominant public figure of my generation and Charles Moore’s authorized three-volume biography comes to a magnificent conclusion with Herself Alone (Allen Lane, $40). It recreates the politics and power struggles, but best, the woman herself in her last years. A breathtaking achievement, as gripping as a good thriller.
I love glitz and gloss and few have lived in the thick of them more than Nicholas Coleridge, Head of Everything in posh magazines for three decades. I pre-ordered The Glossy Years: Magazines, Museums and Selective Memoirs (Fig Tree, $18) and it was worth every penny for names dropped, inside stories, expertise in how that world worked and, endearingly, how happy his marriage and family have been too.
Nicky Haslam is way more than another gloss, glitz and gossip guy. His selected journalism, The Impatient Pen: Printed Matter (Zuleika, $25), is perceptive, intelligent, witty. He also writes better than anyone.
, Julian Jackson’s biography of the French leader (Belknap, $40, $28 pbk), has rightly received huge admiration in Britain — where it won the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize for nonfiction — and even among the cognoscenti in France, which is an extraordinary achievement. It leaves previous works entirely in the shade, largely because of its impeccable research and a rare objectivity and empathy.
The main challenge Jackson’s masterpiece faces to the title of greatest biography of recent years comes from Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone (Allen Lane, $40), the third volume of a superb work of contemporary history and perceptive biography which will mercifully help us to overlook some of his more eccentric current political obsessions.
The best book of 2019 is one I haven’t read yet, or so I suspect: Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). His last novel, Submission, was his best since The Elementary Particles and the new one sounds every bit as fitting for our times as those two. He is the novelist laureate of late Western despair, though what he styles his ‘depressive lucidity’ is both more humanizing and galvanizing than that description suggests. He’s good for the fighting spirit, even if he tells a terrible truth about the odds.
For a warmer account of alienation, involving its overcoming, one would do well to turn to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland (Sentinel, $24), partly a memoir of reconnection with his father and father’s land and partly a reflection on nationalism by one of the American right’s most thoughtful and elegant young essayists. The book is far from being about Donald Trump, but it shows why liberalism has lost its hold on millions of Americans who are disenchanted with what the end of history has meant in their own lives. They want not creative destruction of their families and permanent revolution around the world, but a place to call home.
Paul Theroux’s 51st book, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), reports on a road trip along the length of the US border, from Tijuana to Matamoros and then south. The author looks more deeply into that divided country than he did 40 years ago in The Old Patagonian Express, and he tries to make sense of it, finding hope despite the horror of disintegrating corpses from failed migrant journeys: ‘Mexico was for me a world of struggle, of incident, of questioning, of people under threat and prevailing over their humble circumstances, which was a lesson to me, of venerating the past and being true, being determined to live. I kept thinking with pleasure, I’m still here!’
I also enjoyed Alice Oswald’s Nobody (Cape, $12.58). An invigorating book-length poem, perfect for a bedtime read before dropping off.
Rod Liddle’s The Great Betrayal (Constable, $27) is subtitled The True Story of Brexit, and indeed it is. Also very funny, very depressing and very pessimistic. We poor saps have been stitched up by the dimmest and most cynical of parliaments and Rod at least lets us chuckle as we hurtle towards our doom.
Someone left a copy of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (Hogarth, $26) in my hotel room in Paxos. Before I even realized it was a novel, I was hooked. So this is what passes for love these days. Back home I bought her follow-up, Normal People (Hogarth, $26). Just as real, just as good.
Although regarded as a fountain of knowledge, I occasionally imbibe the wisdom of others. I shall share with you a few tomes of enlightenment I have enjoyed this year. We all seek acceptance but we rarely seek ‘ourselves’. Jonny Marx and Paul Moran’s Where’s the Unicorn?: A Magical Search-and-Find Book (Sterling, $10) encourages us to look beyond the shallow aesthetics of modern life and challenges us to take a journey into the dark recesses of our minds to discover our inner unicorn. A deep and at times unnerving experience. My copy came with a free sheet of sparkle stickers, which was a bonus.
I was delighted to discover there’s a book of Margaret Atwood’s excellent TV show The Handmaid’s Tale called, rather unimaginatively I’m afraid, The Handmaid’s Tale, and possibly penned by a fan of the show. Although nowhere near as exciting or well-written as Hulu’s epic live-action version, it occupied my time while on the toilet or waiting for a bus.
I gleaned valuable insight into the life of a larger person from reading Body Positive Power: How to Stop Dieting, Make Peace with Your Body and Live by Megan Jayne Crabbe (Vermilion, $12). Although I am not heavy myself — I don’t have time to be managing diabetes — it’s encouraging to see people embracing unhealthy lifestyles as a real ‘fuck you!’ to a capitalist society which promotes health only as a way of getting people to spend money for a longer period of time.
Richard Bassett is as refined, amused and amusing as his latest book. Last Days in Old Europe: Trieste ’79, Vienna ’85, Prague ’89 (Penguin, $35) is an enchantingly old-fashioned account of three central European cities as the Cold War melted. Bassett was a foreign correspondent; I suspect he was also a spy, but more in the style of Eric Ambler than Edward Snowden. If you need a field guide to the Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe family, this is it.
Only zealous bores are strict vegetarians, but everyone senses that meat is becoming less essential. Heather Thomas’s The Greek Vegetarian Cookbook (Phaidon, $40) came with me for a month in the western Aegean so that the recipes could be tested in situ. They are practical and delicious, if not always authentic to the pedant. I mean — Greek pizza in ten minutes? But it works. A brilliant book.
I was doubtful when a friend recommended Ian Sansom’s September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem (Harper, $28), a fanatically detailed investigation of the W.H. Auden poem. At the beginning I thought Sansom really must have a friend in the publisher, but eventually I became engrossed. It’s a book of anecdotes, fragments, aperçus, diversions and confessions, possibly a little irritating, but also unforgettable.
Most annoying book of the year must be Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco, $40). But let’s hope it closes the books on this needy, unreadable, voluntarily difficult, overrated, under-read individual whose diminishing number of admirers in the orbit of the New York Review of Each Other’s Books mistake incomprehensibility for profundity.
I greatly enjoyed Orlando Figes’s The Europeans: Three Lives and the Makings of a Cosmopolitan Culture (Metropolitan, $35). A brilliant book about Turgenev and Luis and Pauline Viardot, and also literature, culture and change in 19th-century Russia and Europe. It’s enormously impressive.
I read Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic, $32) in draft and then in finished form. The author re-emphasizes the significance of Christianity insistently, persuasively and, I think, admirably too.
Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts, by Bryan C. Keene (J. Paul Getty Museum, $60), contains some superb essays and outlines new and important ways of looking at medieval history. It has set the cat among the pigeons in the academic world, but that is greatly to the editor’s credit.
Michel Houellebecq’s hilariously sordid state-of-rural-France novel Serotonin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), translated by Shaun Whiteside, is the semi-repentant confession of a failed hedonist who works for the ministry of agriculture. In this ‘degenerate’ land of wealthy porn addicts and demoralized peasants, light relief comes from anti-depressants and the ‘ambience of global catastrophe’ which ‘always goes some way to alleviating individual catastrophes’. The cheerfulness is all in the writing.
I think Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Harry N. Abrams, $27) is not only a gripping but also an important book. You don’t have to be super-woke to read and profit from it: it’s really about the almost always accidental and often hair-raising ways in which the world is designed with men as the default humans, so it’s not so much a feminist tract as a book about the way cognitive biases get built into a system so we cease to notice they are there. It’s funny when it’s not horrifying, deeply researched and done with real verve.
In fiction I got stuck in the 1970s and early 1980s, enjoying Nell Zink’s spry, capacious novel Doxology (Ecco, $28) about families, innocence and punk rock; Nina Stibbe’s delightful period comedy Reasons To Be Cheerful (Little, Brown, $26); and Chris Ware’s gloomy high-school comic Rusty Brown (Pantheon Graphic Library, $35).
Two reliable genre favorites delivered the goods too. Lee Child’s Blue Moon (Dell, $29) sees Jack Reacher back breaking heads, and Mick Herron’s Joe Country (Soho Crime, $27) reassured me that you can never have too much Jackson Lamb.
Robert Macfarlane’s magnum opus Underland: A Deep Time Journey (Norton, $28) is a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of W.G. Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
As always with Macfarlane, the tales of his adventures underground are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place and, perhaps especially, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These concerns run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, but here premonitions of our present Anthropocene apocalypse close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. This book is also about man’s almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is, above all, a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good.
In fiction, I hugely (and belatedly) enjoyed Kamila Shamsie’s fabulous novel Home Fire (Riverhead, $16) but perhaps my most exciting read of the year was in nonfiction. Anita Anand’s remarkable and brilliantly researched nonfiction thriller The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj (Scribner, $30) tells an extraordinary story that had never been properly told before. The Punjabi revolutionary Udham Singh, a Sikh orphan who was radicalized by the Amritsar massacre of 1919, spent his life hunting down the man he held ultimately responsible, the former Punjab governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer. He finally assassinated him in London at a public meeting in the early months of World War Two.
Through remarkable research in archives around the world, Anand has reconstructed much of Singh’s life, from his early days in the rural Punjab through radicalization and his subsequent journey through the international Indian revolutionary underground in Nazi Germany, Bolshevik Russia and, perhaps most surprisingly, 1920s California.
A reissue surely qualifies for a book of the year when it comes in gorgeous packaging, has a slightly updated text and reproduces a healthy ration of new photographs. Credit to Rizzoli for not only republishing Charles Lockwood’s Bricks & Brownstone: The New York Row House ($85), first brought out in 1972 as the result of the author’s undergraduate thesis at Princeton, but also for doing it in such style, with help from Patrick W. Ciccone and Jonathan D. Taylor.
Despite being printed and bound in China, the land where quality bookmaking usually goes to die, this new edition is a triumph, its design worthy of the enduring architectural forms that the book so ably describes. The history of architecture, like all art, suffers from a privileging of the heroic. But while second-rate paintings fade into obscurity, destined to be sold at auction merely as ‘English school’ or ‘in the manner of Poussin’, second-rate buildings have longer lives.
In contemporary New York, despite the blight of Robert Moses’s institutional modernism, we still live among these ordinary but captivating survivors: row houses in red brick, brownstone, limestone and even marble. Lockwood’s achievement is to prove that New York’s 19th-century builder-architects — more craftsmen than artists, laborers than visionaries — were often just as capable as the trained professionals who superseded them. They may not have been all Stanford Whites, but perhaps they weren’t second-rate after all. Building buffs, lovers of streetscapes, budding architectural preservationists and those who remain besotted by New York despite its myriad challenges will treasure this new edition.
In Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer (Knopf, $30), Holbrooke turned out to be an arrogant, rude, brilliant and ultimately disappointed politician who did as much as any one man to end the Bosnian war. The author knew him, tells you when he is leaving out the dull bits, tells you details about Holbrooke’s approach to tennis (competitive) and makes judgments on Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as many others I had not heard of, so you simply have to trust him. I did.
By way of contrast and relief, I was introduced to Mick Herron. Everyone else knows about Herron, who has written 15 books and won or been shortlisted for more than 20 awards. John le Carré and Graham Greene are often mentioned in reviews. The setting of the first Jackson Lamb book, 2010’s Slow Horses (Soho Crime, $10), is a department of MI5 to which those who have failed in some way are banished; so everyone has a shameful secret. Lamb, somewhat past his physical peak, is the department head. The style is oblique, intelligent, almost witty, and the plot twists and surprises. I immediately bought the second in the series, Dead Lions (Soho Crime, $17): same characters, almost as good.
Eileen Hogan: Personal Geographies
by Elisabeth R. Fairman (Yale, $70). Hogan is an immensely accomplished British painter in her seventies. Think Dürer’s ‘Das Grosse Rasenstück’ (‘The Large Piece of Turf’), the first picture to discover charisma in the ordinary and the unimpressive. Hogan’s paintings are representational without being pedantically literal, swift, fluent, inspired in their choice of subjects, inspired in their laconic solutions, a million miles from academic painting, modest and immensely covetable. ‘Her Painting Apron’ (2017), oil on paper, is unassuming but definitive, a lovely, dirty, unforgettable thing, fixed forever.
The book’s cover shows an impulse-watering sprinkler in urgent action. It is better than David Hockney’s bravura bigger splash — a justly famous capture of the impossibly evanescent. Hogan can do people too. Adam Phillips the psychoanalyst is here, with his Bob Dylan impulse-watering artfully sprinkled hair — painted in 2014, just before it more or less vanished.
Hauling back minor classics from the recent past is the great preserve of Slightly Foxed Editions, based in Britain. Among a rich choice of beautifully produced memoirs I can’t think of a nicer Christmas present than John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy: Portrait of Elmbury, Brensham Village and The Blue Field (three hand-numbered volumes, approximately $75 from foxedquarterly.com) — a brilliant, funny picture of rural Gloucestershire in the west of England in the first half of the 20th century.
A companion piece from the same era could be a V.S. Pritchett’s 1968 memoir A Cab at the Door (approximately $14, slightlyfoxed.com) — an account of a wildly unconventional childhood in London and northern England.
The two outstanding biographies of the year both tackle difficult men. Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (Metropolitan Books, $30) explores the conundrum of President Trump’s favorite judge.
What I knew about Thomas is that Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment; what I didn’t know is that he is both conservative and a rock-solid black nationalist. In a brilliantly innovative approach to biography, Robin unpacks Thomas’s ideology not by delving into his psyche but by tracing with razor-like precision the logic of his speeches, interviews and Supreme Court opinions.
The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922–68 by William Feaver (Knopf, $40) shows how Sigmund Freud’s artist grandson turned the idea of the unrepressed id to his advantage. Feaver, who talked on the telephone to Freud for 20 years, crowns himself Boswell to a satanic Johnson. In a market aimed at self-improvement, the pleasure of this book is infernal.
Adam Zamoyski’s Napoleon: A Life (Basic Books, $40) is one of the best biographies I’ve read lately. It is a humanly and historically insightful book, with many fine literary and imaginative touches. Zamoyski’s Bonaparte is endowed with some extraordinary qualities but is in other ways ‘a very ordinary man’. Napoleon, though a brilliant tactician, was in Zamoyski’s opinion an incompetent strategist: a weakness that led to ‘his miserable end’.
Zamoyski places more emphasis on, and devotes more space to, Napoleon’s formative years than to his années glorieuses, and he considers the military aspects of Napoleon’s life chiefly in the context of their effects on the man, his career and contemporary international politics. His account of the former emperor’s final years are sympathetic, humane and moving.
Though a huge admirer of Evelyn Waugh as a man as well as an author, I belatedly picked up his son Auberon’s autobiography, Will This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh: An Autobiography (out of print, c.$10) a couple of months ago. The answer: in spades. Auberon shared his father’s elegantly subtle wit and his sense of humor generally, and is sensible throughout.
I’d also recommend collections of Auberon’s regular British newspaper column Way of the World: a finely observed, though impressionist, portrait of English society and politics in the post-Thatcherite era that, in the tumult of the past three and a half years, seems to me, an American, to have been neglected.
Elliot Ackerman was a young Marine Corps officer during the battle of Fallujah in 2004. I was an embedded journalist with his unit, which lost 20 men in the first week of fighting. I remember him as clever, direct and sometimes playfully ironic, all qualities on display in his book about what he has seen of war, Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (Penguin, $26). His account of how he won a Silver Star is gripping, the chaotic reality on the ground contrasting with the po-faced and supremely uninformative official citation. His descriptions of Syria, which he visited as a writer, were so painfully evocative for me that I had to stop reading for a time. His vivid, sparse prose bears comparison to that of Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried or Norman Lewis in Naples ’44; Places and Names has the same clear-eyed view of what war is.
Éric Vuillard examines the origins of another war in The Order of the Day (Other Press, $22), which describes Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. It won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2017, but was published in English this year. Though some are irritated by Vuillard’s postmodern authorial presence in the narrative, it’s beautifully written. The scene showing the humiliation of Austria’s chancellor during the Anschluss is alone worth the cover price.
Once upon a time, Michel Houellebecq won the Prix Goncourt. You can’t imagine them ever giving it to him again, though he continues to write brilliantly. His latest, Serotonin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), doesn’t disappoint. For some reason, it sent me back to reread Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, which a Spectator colleague reckons is ‘the funniest book in the world’. It is achingly funny, and also full of things that not even a Houellebecq could get away with today.
The film and TV industries having gone on a war footing against white males (African American actors will soon portray historical figures such as Abe Lincoln, FDR, Thomas Edison and Joe DiMaggio), I had a good excuse to hit the books and not waste time looking at the idiot box. Hungary: A Short History by Norman Stone (Profile, $25), a terrific and controversial figure because of his political incorrectness, kept me riveted about a small country with a great, great history. Stone was opinionated, mischievous and a great historian.
George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, $30) was as impossible to put down as it was impossible not to loathe Packer’s subject. Holbrooke was as phony as they come, but a successful phony among the myriad phonies in DC and New York. He was the type the New York Times trusted and quoted, and also the type who forced a couple of Holocaust survivors off a bus going to an Auschwitz commemoration, to make room for himself.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution (Penguin, $18) gave me the most pleasure because it was all about great men like the Howe brothers, George Washington and, yes, the great Benedict Arnold, a hero badly let down by the good guys and so forced to change sides. Both sides were first cousins and both were good. Great read, and time to rehabilitate Ben.
America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House, $30) by Andrew J. Bacevich, a military hero who lost a son in Iraq, will educate you with the truth, not neocon con jobs. Bacevich writes like the hero that he is.
Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 by Agnès Poirier (Holt, $30) got me sexually aroused; it’s all about the Existentialists after the war and the nonstop action they had in the sack.
The best novels of the year were Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, $25) and James Meek’s To Calais, In Ordinary Time (Canongate, $27). Novels are often praised for the gravity of their subjects these days, but what elevated Whitehead’s treatment of race and American brutality was the elegance of its style, the satisfying inventiveness of its form. Meek’s novel was an astounding linguistic fantasy about the advent of the Black Death. French, AngloSaxon and Latin collide in a world of fake news, uncertain sexual borders and a dread of catastrophe which looked in some ways very much like our own. The other novel I thoroughly recommend from my year’s reading, incidentally, is George Eliot’s glorious Romola. A bit late in the day, I know. It came out in 1863.
Oliver Soden’s Michael Tippett: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, $23) was exemplary and placed this wonderful, neglected, undeniably silly British composer in his world of political idealism and radical experiments. I very much enjoyed, too, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco, $40): sympathetic but ultimately devastating for Susan Sontag’s reputation. And the third volume of Charles Moore’s magnificent life of Margaret Thatcher, Herself Alone (Allen Lane, $40), surely places it, as a whole, next to Robert Blake’s Disraeli and Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson among the greatest political biographies.
Having spent all year studiously poring over Spectator articles, eyes glued to my laptop, I didn’t dedicate anywhere near as much time to reading as I should. But I have nonetheless been buying books. Children’s books from England, to be precise, which I read to my young American cousins.
Jill Murphy’s Five Minutes’ Peace (Puffin, $8) is a favorite of both Baker, who is four, and her parents, who are in their thirties. The book concerns a mother elephant who desires, you guessed it, five minutes’ peace from her excitable children. Needless to say, the lessons it can teach to even the most hyperactive little terrors are invaluable.
Another worthy selection is The Shopping Basket by John Burningham (Red Fox, $11). It describes the journey of a boy who is sent out for groceries and encounters various animals on his route home that all want to relieve him of the items in his basket. I would hazard that it’s a significantly more stimulating read than Donald Trump Jr’s Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us (Center Street, $30).
Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore (Vintage, $17) is an exquisite romp through a disciplined imagination. Set in an artist’s studio in the Japanese countryside, the story follows a middle-aged painter who finds himself with no grounding. His wife has left him, he has few friends and his career as a portrait artist brings barely any joy. He has gone through the motions his whole life and finds now that he doesn’t know who he is, what he’s living for or how to go about finding meaning.
Then he enters the studio of a great painter and digs into what gave this man the ability to soldier on and make work. What he discovers is that mystery is always just beneath the surface, that danger lurks everywhere you want to see it and that the ghosts of our past will only let us go if we want them to. While Murakami tackles heavy themes, reading him is as calming and delicious as breathing. Killing Commendatore, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, continues to mark Murakami as one of the greats of Japanese lit in the tradition of Kōbō Abe and Kenzaburō Ōe.
Winston Churchill was the savior of Western civilization during the last century, responsible, more than anyone, for not only warning about the Nazi threat but also combatting it. In Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill (Yale, $26), David Stafford offers keen insights into the formation of Churchill’s character and career by focusing on his exploits during a single year. Stafford argues that at the age of 46, Churchill was at a crossroads. He had made a mess of the Dardanelles campaign during the Great War and wondered if he was ‘finished’. Stafford shows, among other things, that as Secretary of State for the Colonies in David Lloyd George’s cabinet, Churchill played a pivotal role in the Cairo Conference that helped to redraw the map of the Middle East.
In their brilliantly researched and written The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities (Harvard, $35), Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi cast a careful eye upon the ghastly events that took place in the final decades of the Ottoman empire, when its rulers decided to annihilate their Christian subjects. They emphasize that the three waves of violence against the Christians living in Anatolia were not spasmodic or distinct, but formed part of a larger and coherent plan to destroy them utterly. Hitler and the Nazis gleaned lessons from this genocide that they then applied to their own efforts to extirpate Jews from the face of the Earth.
Finally, there is Tobias Boes’s Thomas Mann’s War: Literature, Politics and the World Republic of Letters (Cornell, $35), a scintillating, profound and moving examination of how Mann transformed himself into a leading anti-fascist writer and activist during his exile in America.
There are no wise characters in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, wisdom being, as David Bentley Hart has put it, ‘the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience’. The innocence of Alden Pyle, the young CIA agent who is quiet only when dead, renders him catastrophically foolish. Meanwhile, the experience of our narrator, the middle-aged British journalist and adulterer Thomas Fowler, warps his soul.
Set in Vietnam in the 1950s, in the last days of French colonialism, The Quiet American is a strikingly anti-American novel, undermining US foreign policy, exceptionalism and anti-Communist efforts. Jealousy, political, sexual and spiritual, drives the narrative (and perhaps the author, too). It’s an infuriating, fabulous read.
It is perhaps presumptuous, if not impertinent, for a young writer to quote herself in print. But as I wrote when reviewing it in October, Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, $28) is a brilliant book, less a voice crying in the wilderness than one singing freely in a tuneless land. Incidentally, Mr Murray literally does sing well. I know this from being seated next to him at a Spectator carol concert at St Bride’s in London a couple of years back.
Among recent Churchill biographies, I read Thomas E. Ricks’s dual biography Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin, $28). While Churchill and Orwell never met, and we know little of Churchill’s impression of Orwell, Ricks presents the two men as unified in their defense of freedom from despotism. To support this view, Ricks has written an immensely readable account of their remarkable lives.
For the philosophically minded, The Roger Scruton Reader (Continuum, $35), compiled by Mark Dooley, brings together some of the British philosopher’s most important essays. While it’s not an easy task to condense Scruton’s massive catalog into a single book, Dooley presents the breadth of Scruton’s thought, from essays on contract theory and conservatism to pieces on wine and hunting. As Scruton’s work achieves greater visibility in America, Dooley’s collection is a worthwhile introduction.
In the classics, I recently finished Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (Vintage, $13.95). Dostoevsky’s depiction of nihilism is startling, especially considering our current crisis of social alienation. With its slim size, it’s the perfect Christmas stocking-stuffer.
Artificial intelligence is arguably the greatest threat to humanity since the development of nuclear weapons: the invention of a true thinking machine that can decide for itself what to learn and do and in the process displace us humans.
We’re not there yet. Right now, AI has the intelligence of a two-year-old and needs a human hand to decide what it does next (solve a Rubik’s cube, interpret an X-ray). But this ‘narrow’ AI will eventually give way to a more advanced AI where the machines begin to think for themselves. How soon this will happen, nobody knows. But happen it almost certainly will.
Strikingly, this is happening in a moral and ethical vacuum where there are no rules governing research and development. That is why Stuart Russell’s book Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (Viking, $28) should be required reading for all of us humans.
In these difficult and stressful times, I choose to refer back to a different source of wisdom which I find in The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. So much joy for young and old alike.