Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is wise and strong and unputdownable. But I also loved Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, to which the reviews I have seen did not do justice. It is about terrifying things in Afghanistan, at which Aslam looks bleakly and uncompromisingly. But it is also wonderfully written and imagined – he has the most precise and delightful eye for colours and textures, small gestures and human incomprehension. He knows what he is writing about, and is impatient with ideologues and belief systems, while always patient with human weakness. The book changes the reader. Aslam is an important writer.
Zoe Heller’s The Believers is a novel of ideas, concerned with intelligent people emotionally at war with their own principles. The undumbed-down novel has been in short supply of late – all the more gratifying now to find one, strongly written, full of events and peopled with lively characters one is not obliged to like.
People these days write such horribly nice novels. Heller’s protagonist Rosa, the English-born knee-jerk Marxist now living in New York, is not nice. She deals mercilessly with her disappointing daughters and stroke stricken husband. Heller’s perspicacious insights make Rosa one of the richest literary characters of recent times.
The history book that gave me the most pleasure this year was Simon Schama’s wonderfully exuberant The American Future: A History (The Bodley Head, £20). Each part is a variation on a key American theme: the nation’s ambivalent attitude to war; its tradition of religious toleration; its melting-pot identity; and its creatively destructive economy. A stylistic tour de force, this extraordinary essay also set the scene better than anything else published this year for Barack Obama’s election as president. An honourable mention is also due to Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe by Mark Mazower (Allen Lane £30), which found new and illuminating things about a subject that I had assumed I knew enough about.
The most timely international affairs book of the year was Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World – published before the Wall Street crash, it captured the sense of a shift in global power. A close runner-up in timeliness was Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War – published before the Russian attack on Georgia, it is a well-researched and flamboyant anti-Kremlin polemic.
But my personal favourite was Lawrence Freedman’s A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, a masterly history of recent US foreign policy towards the Middle East since 1979 that traces the twists and turns of policy with clarity, understanding and the occasional hint of exasperation.
The credit crunch will be responsible for libraries of business books over the next few years. The best of the bunch in 2008 includes The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers and the Great Credit Crash, by Charles Morris (PublicAffairs $22.95) – rather a rushed job, but a good starting point for the drama – as well as the FT’s business book of the year When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Market Change, by Mohamed El-Erian (McGraw-Hill Professional £15.99). But my prize goes to Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What To Do About It (Princeton University Press £9.95). It spells out the societal as well as the economic consequences of what is happening, and suggests some innovative responses.
Richard Holloway’s The Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition (Canongate £14.99) blasts those who would make religion into dogma, rather than preserve it as myth – a myth which shares the status of great art. Religion may be dead – but not God, if understood as a human creation. For those who don’t have faith, but are unable to reject the dreamlike pull of the great myths, Holloway’s “after religion” is the place to be. It’s not without some mannerisms and pomposity, but this is nevertheless a fine, humanist essay.
An unusual and genre-bending book that I much admired and enjoyed this year was Kapka Kassabova’s Street Without A Name (Portobello Books, £15.99). It is a young woman’s memoir of life in Bulgaria during and immediately after its Communist years – at once poignant, funny and revealing. Kassabova escapes from Red Bulgaria as soon as she can to wander the world, but it is her return to the country after the collapse of the satellite regime, and her response to her own emotions then, that makes the book historically valuable as a rarely evoked segment of the European experience.
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