The FT’s best books of 2015
Where does literature end and fantasy begin? The answer would seem to involve dragons — or at least, you might have thought so in the early months of 2015 if you were following the debate over Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, The Buried Giant.
Speaking ahead of publication, the British writer had wondered whether readers might be put off by the surface elements of his story, which follows an elderly couple on a quest through a Dark Ages landscape populated by mythical creatures and shrouded in an amnesia-inducing mist. His fears were partly realised. One review in the New York Times described it as a “ham-handed fairy tale” reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, while on the other side of the genre divide the novelist Ursula Le Guin took umbrage at Ishiguro’s apparent dismissiveness and wrote scathingly of how his book failed as fantasy. She and Ishiguro later patched things up but by then the terms of the discussion around the book were set: an old argument over literary snobbery had been reignited and The Buried Giant was caught between the lines.
Which was a shame, because in many ways this was an entirely characteristic Ishiguro novel — both a study in the unreliability of historical memory that harked back to his earliest works and a meditation on love and mortality that resonated movingly with its predecessor, Never Let Me Go (2005). And as the SF elements of that book showed, there is nothing new about Ishiguro experimenting with genre. Perhaps it was his choice this time of fantasy that did it; what Margaret Atwood refers to as “speculative fiction” might sometimes struggle for mainstream literary recognition but it still fares better than the likes of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for all the brio and narrative skill with which the American novelist has constructed his epic of power and politics in an age of looming climate catastrophe.
Writers consigned to the Salon des Refusés might draw consolation from the fact that the rules on which genres gain approval rarely stay still for long. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s dystopian imaginings did not consign them to a literary ghetto, for example; and historical novels, once the embarrassing be-ruffed cousin of modernist fiction, have now won Britain’s Man Booker prize for four years running — most recently in the form of Marlon James’s polyphonic portrait of Jamaica in the 1970s, A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Indeed, it was noticeable this year that the books that excited readers and prize juries were often those most willing to test the conventions of genre. The fourth book in My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical cycle, arrived in English translation in March with many critics seemingly still unsure whether to treat it as a novel or a memoir. Ruth Scurr, similarly, wrought a quiet revolution in historical biography with John Aubrey: My Own Life, in which the 17th-century antiquary’s own writings are used to build a faux-diary that captures a personality and gives us a sense of the real texture of his life. And is Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in October for her luminous interview-based books on subjects such as the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviet-Afghan war, a journalist or an oral historian? Defying classification, for all that it may complicate the lives of librarians, booksellers and literary editors, is usually a good sign.
Perhaps the clearest example of genre-hopping to be found in 2015 was the boom in books by journalists and technology writers on what has long been one of the central concerns of science fiction: the implications of artificial intelligence and automation. Yet there was a marked difference in tone. When we encounter androids in the work of novelists such as Philip K Dick or Isaac Asimov, they are often tragic figures who demand an extension of sympathy: above all else they long to be human, which they will always be denied. The real ones on the horizon seem like a far more worrying prospect.
Few captured the mood as well as Martin Ford in The Rise of the Robots, the winner of the FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, which painted a bleak picture of the upheavals that would come as ever-greater numbers of even highly skilled workers were displaced by machines. But his was one voice among many: in The Future of the Professions, Richard and Daniel Susskind anatomised the ways in which computers were transforming medicine, law and accountancy; in Machines of Loving Grace, John Markoff celebrated the humanistic tradition in technology and made the case for “IA” (“intelligence augmentation”) rather than the more familiar “AI”; while in In Our Own Image, George Zarkadakis speculated on what we can expect if an artificial super-intelligence leaves humanity far behind.
Could we be getting a little ahead of ourselves? It sometimes felt as if the unsettling image of the robot was being made to stand for a host of other trends that worry us: rising inequality, for example, which a year on from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century continued to be a dominant theme of publishing on economics. And it was clear in 2015 that anxiety about technology extended far beyond artificial intelligence. This could be seen in novels such as Purity by Jonathan Franzen, whose characters pondered the parallels between the internet and totalitarian states; in journalistic works such as Jon Ronson’s examination of the dark side of social media, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed; and in cultural criticism such as Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human, which turned to Victorian and Edwardian literature in search of ways to make sense of our current transformation from analogue to digital beings.
The biggest publishing event of the year was undoubtedly Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, released to great fanfare in July after having been liberated from a safe-deposit box by the octogenarian Alabama writer’s lawyer. Presented as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), it is in fact closer to an early draft, submitted in 1957 and admired especially for the childhood sequences that were slowly reworked into Lee’s era-defining novel of racial injustice in the American South; whether Watchman complemented or compromised the book that eventually emerged from it was the subject of much debate.
Still, the spectacle of Atticus Finch, the saintly lawyer of Mockingbird, succumbing in later life to some of the prejudices he had previously stood against could only stick in the throat in a year when outrage at the failed prosecutions of US policemen charged with murdering unarmed black men has seldom been out of the news. On race in America, two titles in particular stood out: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which won many awards, including Britain’s Forward Prize, for its poems interrogating the bigotry encountered everywhere from the campus to the tennis court; and Between the World and Meby Ta-Nehisi Coates, a searing epistolary essay addressed to his teenaged son that paid homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963).
In Britain, political publishing clustered around a curious general election — one that was discussed at the time almost exclusively in terms of the new realities of coalition-building arithmetic but which took a decidedly retro turn: a majority Conservative government, a heavily defeated Labour party that swung quickly to the left and even the revival of a debate on nuclear disarmament. Fittingly, there was a 1980s feel to some of the autumn catalogues: Andy Beckett’s Promised You a Miracle took us back to the first three years of that decade, showing how the new individualist zeitgeist extended deep even into those parts of society most opposed to Thatcherism, while the latest volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of the Iron Lady herself provided a detailed and authoritative narrative of her second term, in which she did so much to cement her legacy.
By the autumn it was also becoming clear that this was a year of big bestsellers. EL James’s Fifty Shades follow-up, Grey, exasperated reviewers but nonetheless swiftly broke through the 1m mark for print sales in both the US and the UK. Second across both markets (though first in its home territory) was Go Set a Watchman, followed by the surprise package of the year, Paula Hawkins’ debut thrillerThe Girl on the Train, which sold nearly 1.6m copies and possibly would have done even better had not significant numbers of people confused it with a 2013 title by AJ Waines, Girl on a Train. Just for once, that oft-heard lament of dissenting reading group members could well have been justified: everyone else was talking about a different book.
For publishers, long accustomed to living under the shadow of the kind of technological disruption so stylishly described by Stephen Witt in his account of the rise of file-sharing, How Music Got Free, this could not have been more welcome. Indeed, sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstones pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks-and-mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will have to wait and see.
Illustrations by Lucy Cartwright
Inequality: What Can be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson, Harvard University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$29.95
Atkinson is the doyen of those scholars who have focused on trends in inequality over the past half-century. In this important book, he focuses not so much on what has happened or why, but on what to do about it, particularly in the UK. The result is a challenging set of proposals.
The Courage to Act: A Memoir of the Crisis and its Aftermath, by Ben Bernanke, WW Norton, RRP£22.99/RRP$35
Bernanke was at the helm of the world’s most important central bank during the financial crisis of 2007-08. A distinguished scholar of the Great Depression, he was the right man to be in charge of US monetary policy at that time. Here he gives a compelling account of what he and the Federal Reserve did and why they did it. The book also provides reflections on the lessons. He is insufficiently radical on finance. But his defence of the Fed against its critics is compelling.
The Globalization of Inequality, by François Bourguignon, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$27.95
Bourguignon’s focus is global, not local, and is more on what has happened to inequality than on what to do about it. This makes it a valuable complement to Atkinson’s book. Crucially, Bourguignon points to some good news: inequality has been falling among households at a global level, albeit from extremely high levels, and there have been impressive reductions in the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty.
The Public Wealth of Nations, by Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£24.99/RRP$40
The public sector balance sheet does not only have liabilities. It also has assets. Managing those assets well is at least as important as managing the liabilities. Here the authors show how big, undervalued and mismanaged public assets generally are.
Other People’s Money, by John Kay, Profile, RRP£16.99/PublicAffairs, RRP$27.99
“The finance sector of modern Western economies is too large . . . Its growth has not been matched by corresponding improvements in the provision of services to the non-financial economy.” In this excellent book, Kay, a fellow columnist on the FT, explains how this came about and what to do about it.
Economics Rules, by Dani Rodrik, OUP, RRP£16.99/WW Norton, RRP$27.95
After the financial crisis, economics is in the doghouse. Rodrik, one of the world’s most perceptive policy analysts, wants it let out again, albeit on a leash. One should, he insists, regard economics as “a collection of models”, not as a single grand, overarching theory. The economist’s art lies in knowing which model is appropriate to the task at hand.
Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt, by Martin Sandbu, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$29.95
My FT colleague, Martin Sandbu, seeks to rescue the euro from obloquy. His argument is that it is not the euro but mistaken policy that has caused the crisis of the eurozone. Monetary union does not need fiscal and political union. It needs debt restructuring. The book provides a sophisticated “liquidationist” alternative to the dominant rhetoric.
Why Are We Waiting?: The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, by Nicholas Stern, MIT Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$27.95
Lord Stern was author of the 2007 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. In this follow-up, he argues strongly that we are continuing to underestimate the costs of inaction. It is time to act, he asserts, not only because the costs of failing to do so could be huge, but also because the costs of the needed actions are becoming ever smaller.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, by Richard Thaler, Allen Lane, RPP£20/WW Norton, RRP$27.95
This enjoyable book describes the role of the author in the making of an intellectual counter-revolution: the rise of “behavioural economics”. Not so long ago, right-thinking economists focused their attention on an imaginary species of sociopaths, rational maximisers whom Thaler calls “Econs”. Actual people, however, whom he calls “Humans”, are vastly more interesting. Thaler explains how much we have learnt about the mistakes we humans are apt to make.
Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance, by Adair Turner, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$29.95
Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, provides a brilliant analysis of the fragility of our debt-fuelled economies. History has shown that the confidence in the benefits of financial liberalisation and the stability offered by inflation-targeting was a “fatal conceit”. Hayek had applied this phrase to socialist planning. But uncritical belief in the free market rested on essentially the same mistaken utopianism.
Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$27.95
We insure our lives against an uncertain future; so why not our planet? That is the question addressed in this lively and thought-provoking book. The authors show that among the possible outcomes of the path we are on are extreme climate changes. Rational and far-sighted policymakers would wish to eliminate such possibilities. Yet if we are to achieve that goal, we need to act now.
The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, Oneworld, RRP£18.99/Basic Books, RRP$28.99
Ford’s chilling message in The Rise of the Robots — the 2015 FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year — is that the transition to a less labour-intensive economy will be miserable and even dangerous as inequality, technological unemployment and climate change collide. Radical solutions are needed, but Ford warns that “the future may arrive long before we are ready”.
Foolproof: Why Safety Can be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe, by Greg Ip, Headline, RRP£20/Little Brown, RRP$28
This book is about financial crises and how, in trying to avoid them, regulators and central bankers sometimes create the conditions that cause them. But Ip explains this paradox through entertaining and provocative parallels with the worlds of civil aviation, flood management and forestry. Sometimes, he points out, it is better to allow a small fire to burn than to extinguish it and risk a bigger conflagration.
Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, Flatiron Books, RRP$27.99
The tale of how a talented engineer and an ambitious salesman created the signature business communications device of the early 2000s is ably told by McNish and Silcoff. Their blow-by-blow account explains just how much co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie got right in building and selling the device — and then how badly wrong they got their reaction to the all-conquering iPhone.
Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines, by Suzanne Mustacich, Henry Holt, RRP$32
In the latest book to illuminate the state of China through its citizens’ fast-growing obsessions (golf, art and now wine), Mustacich examines the Chinese passion for sought-after French vintages, and the parallel growth of a domestic wine industry.
Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin, by Nathaniel Popper, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Harper, RRP$27.99
This timely first draft of the history of a new cryptocurrency provides as reliable a guide to the rise of bitcoin as is possible, given the anarchy surrounding its creation, its volatile evolution and unpredictable future. A fine explanation of the significance of the innovation and its underlying technology, the blockchain.
Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Oneworld, RRP£16.99/Random House, RRP$28
An alternative vision to that laid out by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, this book is a more nuanced account of the hurdles facing women in the workplace. Ranging widely from the latest research to her own experience, Slaughter points out that the problem is not, pace Sandberg, with women, but with work. Specifically, employers, leadership habits and policies need to change in order to allow women to advance freely.
The Silo Effect, by Gillian Tett, Little, Brown, RRP£20/Simon & Schuster, RRP$28
From Sony to Facebook, the FT’s US managing editor uses colourful examples to show how reinforcing the walls between different parts of organisations can lead to disaster and, conversely, how “silo-busting” can liberate creativity. One of the underlying messages is that maintaining a healthy culture requires constant vigilance and effort.
How Music Got Free, by Stephen Witt, Bodley Head, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$27.95
By concentrating on a few significant characters — from Doug Morris, the tycoon at the top of the recorded music tree, to the highly organised pirates at the bottom — Witt maps out how an industry was turned on its head by file-sharing technology. A colourful cautionary tale for any established business facing digital disruption.
The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel Bell, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$29.95
Bell, a Canadian philosopher based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, argues that there is a “crisis of governance in western democracies” and makes the controversial argument that China offers a superior model — in which leaders are selected on merit rather than by the electorate.
The Looting Machine, by Tom Burgis, William Collins, RRP£20/PublicAffairs, RRP$27.99
The book’s thesis is conveyed by its subtitle — “warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth”. Burgis, who worked as an FT correspondent in Africa, presents an unsparing portrait of the corruption that blights the continent.
Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, by Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, RRP£35/Penguin Press, RRP$39.95
Ferguson’s revisionist line, signalled in his subtitle, may not convince those who see Kissinger as the master of realpolitik. But, at 1,000 pages, this is a formidably detailed, closely argued study of the making of one of the giants of 20th-century foreign policy.
Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, William Heinemann, RRP£18.99/FSG, RRP$25
A novel would not normally be included in the politics books of the year, but the publication of Houellebecq’s controversial novel, which features the election of an Islamist president in France in 2022, was a political event in itself. The book is brilliant, funny and deliberately offensive — and offers a sharp insight into the troubles of modern France.
Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, by Christina Lamb, William Collins, RRP£25
Journalist Lamb first started covering Afghanistan when the mujahideen were fighting the Russians. Here she delivers a detailed, painful and convincing account of how and why the west failed in Afghanistan.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants, by Charles Moore, Allen Lane, RRP£30
A beautifully written and deeply researched biography, which covers the years from 1983 to 1987, when “Thatcherism” was at its zenith. Moore’s account covers dramatic events, such as the miners’ strike and the Brighton bombing, and innovative policies, such as privatisation.
The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, by Arkady Ostrovsky, Atlantic, RRP£20
A vivid account of the evolution of modern Russia by a former FT journalist. Ostrovsky shows how the liberal dreams of the Gorbachev era gave way to the authoritarian nationalism of the Putin period.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam, Simon & Schuster, RRP£18.99/RRP$28
Putnam, one of America’s leading political scientists, tackles rising inequality in the US and its effect on the “American Dream”. Through a mix of anecdote and data, he shows how the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs has wrought social havoc.
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky, Atlantic, RRP£18.99/PublicAffairs, RRP$28.99
A vivid insider’s account of America’s failed effort to rebuild Iraq by a critical, but sympathetic, British adviser who was embedded with US forces. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant, by Stephen Church, Macmillan, RRP£25/Basic Books, RRP$29.99
Magna Carta, the foundation stone of constitutional government in the English-speaking world, passed its 800th anniversary this year. Church explains with exemplary clarity how the charter emerged from the turmoil of King John’s reign.
Charles I and the People of England, by David Cressy, OUP, RRP£30/$49.95
Cressy is the author of several delightful books on the social history of Tudor and Stuart England that draw on curious material buried in the archives. Here the Ohio State University historian investigates what the common people thought of Charles I before the king’s tumultuous reign ended with his beheading in 1649.
A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile, RRP£30
New books on the violent dawn of Irish independence are appearing thick and fast as the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising draws near. Ferriter sets the bar high for good writing and scholarship in this outstanding study.
Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment, by Benjamin Kaplan, Yale University Press, RRP£19.99/$30
In 1762, religious conflict flared up on the Dutch-German border when a Catholic woman attempted to kidnap a baby to prevent its baptism in a Protestant church. Kaplan paints a lucid, fascinating picture of the Enlightenment as an age of prejudice as much as one of toleration.
Towards the Flame: War and the End of Tsarist Russia, by Dominic Lieven, Allen Lane, RRP£25/Viking, RRP$35
Aristocratic values, imperial mindsets and the emergence of modern nationalisms are the big themes of this illuminating history of late tsarist Russia. Lieven writes with all the clarity, conviction and fluent command of sources that readers have come to expect of him.
Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago, by Gillian O’Brien, University of Chicago Press, RRP$25
The 1889 murder in Chicago of Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish-American physician and political activist, was one of the great scandals of 19th-century US public life. O’Brien recounts the story with enormous verve.
The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, by Susan Pedersen, OUP, RRP£22.99/$34.95
At the 1919 Paris peace conference, the nations that emerged victorious from the first world war agreed to govern conquered territories under mandates from the League of Nations. In her path-breaking study, Pedersen explores the tensions that arose from the collision of old-style imperialism with colonial nationalism and a new international bureaucratic order.
Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, by Rebecca Spang, Harvard University Press, RRP£25/$39.95
Spang, author of a highly original 2000 book on French history entitled The Invention of the Restaurant, has done it again. Here she views the French Revolution from new angles by analysing the cultural significance of money at a time of European war, domestic terror and inflation.
‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, Princeton University Press, RRP£24.95/$35
If you read one book about the 1915 Armenian genocide, make this it. Suny is one of the western world’s most renowned scholars of the Caucasus region. His account of the fate that befell the Armenians at Ottoman Turkish hands is harrowingly detailed and scrupulously objective.
The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way It Is?, by Nick Lane, Profile, RRP£25/WW Norton, RRP$27.95
Biochemist Lane has written nothing less than a new theory of life, within the broad context of Darwinian evolution. He shows how simple microbes, which monopolised Earth for the first 2bn years after life emerged, took the momentous step towards becoming the complex “eukaryotic” cells that evolved into animals, plants, fungi and protozoa.
The Cunning of Uncertainty, by Helga Nowotny, Polity, RRP£16.99
Nowotny, a great figure in European science policy, looks at the impact of uncertainty on all aspects of modern life. She is particularly interested in the efforts by researchers and technologists to reduce uncertainty — with mixed results. This is an important work of social science that will also entertain non-specialists.
Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People who Think Differently, by Steve Silberman, Allen & Unwin, RRP£16.99/Avery, RRP$29.95
Silberman, a US journalist, won the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for this investigation of autism. A rich blend of contemporary reportage and medical and social history, it explains why disorders on the autism spectrum are diagnosed so much more frequently today than they were a generation or two ago.
The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat, by Tim Spector, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£14.99
Scientists are beginning to appreciate the medical importance of the microbiome, the resident population of 100tn or so microbes inside the human body. Several popular books have appeared this year about our microbial guests, focusing on their role in promoting human health — and Spector, a world leader in genetic studies of twins, has written the best of them.
The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, by David Wootton, Allen Lane, RRP£30/Harper, RRP$35
A masterly account of the “scientific revolution” that transformed western civilisation during the 16th and 17th centuries. Wootton’s long book — more than 750 pages — is packed with people, stories, facts and argument on the emergence of experimentation to discover the laws of nature.
Portraits: John Berger on Artists, by John Berger, edited by Tom Overton, Verso, RRP£25/RRP$44.95
Essays spanning 30,000 years of art history by a writer who uniquely combines critical acuity and imaginative empathy with Marxist conviction. “If I am a political propagandist, I am proud of it,” Berger says, “but my heart and eye have remained those of a painter.” The combination is always illuminating.
Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, by Catherine Lampert, Thames & Hudson, RRP£19.95/RRP$40
Lampert has sat as a model to the reclusive artist for four decades. Here she draws on their conversations to produce a gripping, sensitive portrait, close to biography but brighter and livelier than straightforward narrative in conveying the rhythms of Auerbach’s painting, life and thought.
Paul Cézanne: Drawings and Watercolours, by Christopher Lloyd, Thames & Hudson, RRP£24.95/Getty, RRP$39.95
Rilke called Cézanne’s watercolours “as confident as his paintings, and as light as the paintings are heavy”. This beautiful compact reading volume is a deeply thought, lightly rendered account, particularly of the rhapsodic watercolours with which Cézanne balanced drawing and painting, line and colour, in shifting equilibriums to convey sensation and feeling.
Japan’s Love for Impressionism, edited by Beate Marks-Hanssen, Prestel, RRP£40/RRP$60
That rare thing, a fresh perspective on impressionism. Recounting especially Monet’s relationship with his Japanese collectors, this catalogue to a current German exhibition reveals stunning paintings — Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Signac, Seurat — from collections virtually unknown in the west.
Vermeer: The Complete Works, by Karl Schütz, Taschen, RRP£99.99/RRP$150
There will never be an exhibition of all Vermeer’s 35 surviving works, scattered across museums worldwide; this catalogue with spectacular reproductions, close-up details and fold-out spreads is a supreme retrospective in print of the great artist of silence, intimacy, the transient gesture. Art book of the year.
Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson, Influx Press, RRP£12.99
A compendium of fantasy cities that takes its cue from Marco Polo via Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this remarkable survey reveals the influence that the metropolis of the mind has had on the real thing.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro, Bodley Head, RRP£35/Vintage, RRP$26
First published in 1974 but only now appearing in the UK, this slab of a book is a fine monument to the man who built modern New York. As the head of the city’s construction authorities in the middle of the 20th century, Moses wielded unprecedented power, smashing freeways through the city and reshaping the landscape.
Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery, by Robert Harbison, Reaktion, RRP£20/$35
Drawing parallels from modernist literature and art, Harbison suggests that the ruin and the fragment appeal to contemporary sensibilities precisely because of their incompleteness and their embodiment of loss and nostalgia. With the destruction of sites of antiquity by Isis, this is a timely and beautifully written study of why we are so attached to pieces of the past.
England’s Post-War Listed Buildings, by Elain Harwood and James Davies, Batsford, RRP£40/$60
Brutalism and modernism have become fiercely fashionable as the current paucity of thinking about architecture in social and political terms makes their monuments seem visionary — more modern, even, than many of today’s buildings. Harwood and Davies have produced a beautifully illustrated guide to this architectural legacy.
Alfred Hitchcock, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99
It’s a surprise it has taken Ackroyd so long to get to Hitchcock, a figure who always lurked in the spiritual margins of the writer’s studies of London. The book is physically slim, but moreishly thick with insight.
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, by Mollie Gregory, University Press of Kentucky, RRP$40
Remember that indelible opening scene in Jaws? The lone swimmer claimed by the deep was a professional stuntwoman, Susan Backlinie, just one in a long line that Gregory spotlights in a story that takes us back to the dawn of the movies.
Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I, by Shinobu Hashimoto, translated by Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, Vertical, RRP$21.95
Few guides for would-be screenwriters could match Hashimoto, whose long years writing for the great Kurosawa yielded landmarks such as Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Much of this crisply observant memoir serves as a blueprint for relations between writer and director. Later, after the two part company, things get spiky.
Classical music and opera
Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures, by Alfred Brendel, Biteback, RRP£25
Not only the complete collected writings for the first time, but also the sum of wisdom from a thinking man’s musician looking back over his career. Brendel reflects deeply on Beethoven and Liszt, performing and recording, and — an endearing enthusiasm — his appreciation of humour in music.
The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions, edited by Michael Church, Boydell Press, RRP£25/RRP$45
From Turkish makam to Javanese gamelan and the Mande music of west Africa, the musical world embraces a wealth of classical traditions. This compendium seeks to open doors to the riches of 15 of the most substantial in a lively, but comprehensible style.
My Life with Wagner, by Christian Thielemann, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£25
Coincidence or not, this is the year when Christian Thielemann achieved his life’s ambition. Newly installed as music director at the Bayreuth festival, Thielemann sets out his thoughts on Wagner the man and the artist.
In the All-Night Café, by Stuart David, Little, Brown, RRP£16.99/Chicago Review, RRP$15.95
Belle and Sebastian were outsiders in Britpop’s lager-swilling, cocaine-snorting heyday. Stuart David, their former bassist, recounts the Scottish indie band’s origins in his charming memoir, a story whose most rock and roll moment involves mild misbehaviour with After Eight mints.
Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, by Michael Denning, Verso, RRP£17.99/RRP$24.95
Noise Uprising’s year zero is 1925, when electrical recording techniques allowed vinyl to conquer the world. Record companies hunted new sounds: Argentine tango singers, Cuban son musicians, Egyptian taarab vocalists. Denning links the explosion of vernacular recordings to an emergent age of decolonisation.
I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny, by Mick Houghton, Faber, RRP£20
Fairport Convention’s singer had one of the great voices of the 1970s. Houghton’s well-researched biography traces Denny’s success and its sabotage by drink and a fragile personality.
M Train, by Patti Smith, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/Knopf, RRP$25
The sequel to Just Kids opens with Smith in a café with a notebook, wondering how to write about nothing. Difficult second memoir syndrome, perhaps: but Smith conquers it in style, delivering reminiscences about writing, reading and married life with Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, by Ed Caesar, Viking, RRP£16.99/Simon & Schuster, RRP$26
Runners have come tantalisingly close to finishing the 26 miles and 375 yards in under two hours — but none has yet done so. Focusing on Kenyan athlete Geoffrey Mutai, Caesar’s book is an engaging study of the extremes of obsession and the limits of physiology.
Summer’s Crown: The Story of Cricket’s County Championship, by Stephen Chalke, Fairfield Books, RRP£20
A wonderfully researched, very well written and lovingly produced history of the county championship. Rather than a continuous narrative, this is a series of illustrated vignettes covering different themes and curiosities decade by decade. The result is a book filled with characters and laughter.
Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire, by Martin Fletcher, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99
Fletcher was 12 when he went with his father, brother, uncle and grandfather to watch Bradford City play football on May 11 1985. He returned home that evening without his relatives, who were devoured by the fire that killed 56 in the old wooden stand. A heartbreaking book, yet also a sweet evocation of provincial northern England.
A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, by Donald McRae, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20
McRae — a South African who is arguably Britain’s most garlanded author on sport — has done it again with the story of a black boxer who was secretly gay, killed an opponent in the ring, and then got pugilistic dementia. An astonishing story, simply told through a mix of sensitive interviews and deep reading.
Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, by William Skidelsky, Yellow Jersey, RRP£16.99
Here is tennis’s answer to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch: Skidelsky describes how the beauty of Roger Federer’s tennis game helped restore him to mental health. The book is particularly strong on Federer’s place in tennis history — and funny about Federer’s nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
Half-Time: The Glorious Summer of 1934, by Robert Winder, Wisden, RRP£18.99
This splendidly evocative book concentrates on one fortnight when Britain achieved almost simultaneous triumphs in cricket, tennis and golf. Winder recreates the mood of 1934, while providing a sort of triple biography of cricketer Hedley Verity, tennis player Fred Perry and golfer Henry Cotton.
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, RRP£20/Little, Brown, RRP$28
In her 2013 novel Life After Life, Atkinson followed one woman through multiple possible lives. This sort-of sequel focuses on the woman’s brother, and counterpoints his experiences as a bomber pilot with his resolutely unremarkable peacetime life. A celebration of quiet heroism, told with great formal skill and narrative panache.
Number 11, by Jonathan Coe, Penguin Viking, RRP£16.99
Like his acclaimed What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe’s 11th novel is a swingeing state-of-the-nation satire; it even features some of the same characters. If this one doesn’t hit quite hit the heights of its predecessor, it’s still a provocative and very funny riposte to the rhetoric of Austerity Britain.
The Green Road, by Anne Enright, Cape, RRP£16.99/WW Norton, RRP$26.95
Like The Gathering, Enright’s 2007 Booker winner, The Green Road centres on a family reunion. This time it’s the Madigans — matriarch Rosaleen and her four children, rendered variously dysfunctional by their mother’s self-centredness. Enright dissects their foibles with warmth, wit and a bracing lack of sentimentality.
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, RRP£20/FSG, RRP$28
So it’s not Franzen’s finest — not up there with The Corrections (2001), say. But he’s still a formidably talented writer, and Purity, in which the eponymous heroine goes in search of her unknown father, is a serious, humane, irresistibly readable portrait of our information-intoxicated age.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, RRP£20/Knopf, RRP$26.95
Even for a genre-hopper such as Ishiguro, his first novel in 10 years was a surprise: a fantasy set in a mist-shrouded England not long after Roman times, complete with a dragon and an ageing Sir Gawain. With its vivid imagery and measured prose, the book is an extended reflection on historical memory and forgetting.
The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, Penguin, two volumes, RRP£25 each
In two handsomely designed volumes, Hensher showcases “probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition” of short story writing in the world, from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith. If it’s impossible not to take issue with some of the omissions — no Katherine Mansfield, no EM Forster — you have to admire Hensher’s championing of unfamiliar names alongside established greats.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, Oneworld, RRP£8.99/Riverhead, RRP$17
James became the first Jamaican winner of the Man Booker Prize with this exploration of the events surrounding the shooting of Bob Marley in December 1976. Told through multiple voices — gangsters, a groupie, a CIA station chief and others — it also charts the rise of crack cocaine in the US in the 1980s; but if James does not shy away from depicting brutal violence, there’s also humanity and humour here.
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami, Periscope, RRP£9.99/Vintage, RRP$15.95
The Moor in question is Estebanico, a slave mentioned in passing in a 16th-century record as being one of only four survivors of the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez’s disastrous expedition to Florida. From this fleeting reference, Lalami has spun a compelling tale of “the disease of empire” in the New World.
The Crossing, by Andrew Miller, Sceptre, RRP£18.99
An enigma lies at the heart of Miller’s follow-up to his Costa-winning Pure: heroine Maud may be irresistible to posh Tim, who has a child with her, but he can never puncture her self-sufficiency. Nor can the reader, even as we follow Maud on a perilous solo yacht voyage after the family falls apart. Part relationship study, part sailing yarn, this odd yet enthralling book lingers long in the mind.
Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss, Granta, RRP£12.99
A sequel to Bodies of Light (2014), Moss’s novel continues the story of Ally, fighting to be taken seriously as a doctor in the unforgiving milieu of a Victorian asylum. Meanwhile, the husband she has only just married must undertake a long voyage to Japan. Moss vividly brings to life their contrasting experiences in this nuanced study of lives constricted or liberated by circumstance.
The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien, Faber, RRP£18.99
Inspired by Radovan Karadzic’s disguise while on the run, The Little Red Chairs starts with the arrival of a bearded stranger, “Dr Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist”, in a small Irish town. What follows is a masterly study of evil and human resilience, its darkness counterpointed by O’Brien’s poetic aliveness to the sensual world.
When their father moves away, four brothers in Nigeria consider themselves released from his ambitions for them: instead of studying hard for lives in the professions, they spend their time fishing. But even in the 1990s, old superstitions — in the form of a madman’s prophecy — can poison seemingly solid relationships. Obioma’s masterly debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award for Fiction.
The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota, Picador, RRP£14.99
Set in the UK and India, Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel focuses on three men who have left India in search of work, and on the devout Sikh “visa bride” of one of them. The streets are not paved with gold in this grittily powerful novel.
Cockfosters, by Helen Simpson, Jonathan Cape, RRP£15.99
Beginning with 1990s Four Bare Legs in a Bed, Simpson’s sharp, witty story collections have largely tracked her own time of life in their preoccupations. Now in her mid-fifties, she focuses on the sometimes poignant, sometimes just irksome trials of middle age; the resulting stories are warm, funny and acutely observed.
The Wallcreeper/Mislaid, by Nell Zink, Fourth Estate, RRP£20/published in US by Dorothy (Wallcreeper) and Ecco (Mislaid)
Two oddities in a single yellow slipcase: debut novel The Wallcreeper, published in the US last year when Zink was 50, is an eccentric tale of eco-activism and marital failure; her follow-up, Mislaid, is an equally quirky novel about a white mother and child passing themselves off as black. If the narratives often feel merely wayward, Zink’s vivid, zingy prose is ample compensation.
Fiction in translation
A General Theory of Oblivion, by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99/Archipelago, RRP$18
On the eve of Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, the agoraphobic Ludo bricks herself into an apartment in Luanda. She spends the next three decades in self-imposed isolation as a civil war rages outside, until a chance encounter with a young burglar finally brings her out into a transformed country. A remarkable novel from one of Angola’s most notable storytellers.
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen, Oneworld, RRP£8.99/Other Press, RRP$14.95
The winner of this year’s Goncourt Prize for best first novel, this powerful retelling of Albert Camus’ The Outsider is not only a deconstruction of a literary classic but also a plaintive meditation on the growing hold of conservative Islam in modern Algeria.
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Euan Cameron, Europa Editions, RRP£11.99/$18
The final instalment of Ferrante’s triumphant Neapolitan quartet picks up the story of life-long friends Lila and Lenù. The novel focuses brilliantly — as did its predecessors — on the emotional intricacies and the rollercoaster intensity of the friendship between its now mature protagonists.
One Night, Markovitch, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press, RRP£10
This confident debut by Israel’s Gundar-Goshen kicks off as a picaresque novel about Yaacov and his philandering friend Zeev, two villagers in pre-second world war Palestine who sign up to a scheme to marry Jewish European women and bring them back to the homeland. A tender, sensual study of human frailties and desires.
Seiobo There Below, by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, Tuskar Rock, RRP£16.99/New Directions, RRP$17.95
A series of interlinking stories are at the heart of this novel by the winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. One of Hungary’s most outstanding authors creates moving meditations on beauty and our responses to it.
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Euan Cameron, MacLehose, RRP£14.99/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$24
“It’s full of ghosts here,” says a character in the latest work by the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize to be translated into English. The loss of an address book leads the protagonist to confront his past in Paris’s postwar suburbs in an atmospheric novel that follows the emotional contours of the author’s own early life.
In the Night of Time, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Edith Grossman, Tuskar Rock Press, RRP£16.99/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$30
A successful architect is caught up in the twin upheavals of the Spanish civil war and an overpowering love affair in this novel by one of Spain’s most distinguished authors. An exhilarating account of a man wrestling with guilt and desire as the world falls apart.
A Strangeness in My Mind, by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap, Faber, RRP£20/Knopf, RRP$28.95
Through the story of Mevlut Karatas, who migrates from Anatolia to Istanbul as a child and grows up to become a street vendor, the 2006 Nobel laureate offers another loving meditation on the city of his birth. A polyphonic novel about desire, memory, change and the lost pleasures of walking around Istanbul’s long-gone neighbourhoods.
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, by Jonathan Bate, William Collins, RRP£30/Harper, RRP$40
Bate’s book started out as a “literary life”, bolstered by huge amounts of research and unfettered access, but Hughes’s widow had second thoughts. The result was nonetheless shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and still manages to illuminate the poet’s lowering literary presence.
Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$35
Crawford’s exhaustive biography of TS Eliot’s early years anatomises the poet’s early education. Read alongside Christopher Ricks’s magisterial two-volume annotated complete works for Eliot in surround sound.
Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20
Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Macfarlane’s book focuses on the words we have accumulated for the land around us. A richly complex work from an acclaimed nature writer.
The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, by Laurence Scott, William Heinemann, RRP£20
In his study of our hyperactive internet age, Scott’s interest lies less in the technology than in we who use it. Scott’s references are admirably broad, spanning high and low culture in a layered and complex (and Samuel Johnson shortlisted) account.
John Aubrey: My Own Life, by Ruth Scurr, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25
Shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award, Ruth Scurr’s experimental “act of scholarly imagination” brings to life the 17th-century antiquarian and author of Brief Lives, John Aubrey. By collating Aubrey’s own words from various sources, Scurr’s book captures the voice of a man more often a “ghostly record keeper” in his own writing.
John le Carré: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Bloomsbury, RRP£25/Harper, RRP$28.99
While Sisman may not make the literary case for le Carré’s novels as cogently as some might wish, he offers insights into the complex and contradictory life of the creator of George Smiley. A fascinating precursor to le Carré’s own promised memoir.
The White Road, by Edmund de Waal, Chatto & Windus, RRP£20/FSG, RRP$27
The ceramicist and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) returns with his history of porcelain from ancient China to the present day. In a tandem autobiographical strand, de Waal also recounts his own love affair with the material.
The Poems of TS Eliot: The Annotated Text, Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, Faber, RRP£40 each/Johns Hopkins University Press, RRP$44.95 and RRP$39.95 respectively
This meeting of one of the 20th century’s most important poets and one of our greatest scholars is an exercise in literary generosity. Ricks and co-editor McCue offer eight pages of enlightening commentary to each page of Eliot’s poems, some of which are collected here for the first time.
Horace: Poems, edited by Paul Quarrie, Everyman’s Library, RRP£9.99
Everyman’s elegant “Pocket Poet” series includes some surprising delights. In this edition, almost as fascinating as Horace’s lines are some of the collected translators: Milton, Byron, even Elizabeth I.
Steep Tea, by Jee Leong Koh, Carcanet, RRP£9.99
The Singapore-born poet’s first UK publication is disciplined yet adventurous in form, casual in tone and deeply personal in subject matter. Koh’s verse addresses the split inheritance of his postcolonial upbringing, as well as the tension between an émigré’s longing for home and rejection of nostalgia.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine, Penguin Poetry, RRP£9.99/Graywolf, RRP$20
Rankine won the Forward prize (and several others in the US) for this collection of prose poems and essays. Inspired by observations of everyday racism, these sharply crafted vignettes are fierce, witty, thought-provoking and alarming.
Tell No Tales, by Eva Dolan, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99
Dolan’s Long Way Home (2014) focused on immigrant workers menaced by ruthless gangmasters. Detectives Zigic and Ferreira return in Tell No Tales, this time investigating neo-Nazis in a Peterborough that is a long way from the cosy stereotypes of provincial cathedral towns.
The Mulberry Bush, by Charles McCarry, Head of Zeus, RRP£18.99/Mysterious Press, RRP$26
Is there a thriller writer alive today who both worked for the CIA and wrote speeches for Eisenhower? Yes, there is — and McCarry, after his spectacular early career, has achieved remarkable success as a novelist. In his latest book, a young spy infiltrates the CIA to avenge the death of his father.
Icarus, by Deon Meyer, translated by KL Seegers, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£17.99
Meyer’s novels present an unvarnished picture of the social divisions in post-apartheid South Africa. Here Captain Benny Griessel investigates the murder of a man behind an internet service that supplies unfaithful partners with plausible cover stories — but, like his clients, was he all he appeared to be?
The Killing of Bobbi Lomax, by Cal Moriarty, Faber, RRP£12.99
When bombs go off in a US city, one survivor turns out to have belonged to a sinister sect, The Faith. Might he also be a murderer? Moriarty’s debut novel is a blistering examination of both the criminal mind and the dark secrets that lie within America’s Bible Belt.
Escape From Baghdad!, by Saad Hossain, Unnamed Press, RRP$16.00
Unclassifiably wild, weird and wacky, Hossain’s debut novel mixes Islamic mysticism, Greek myth, alchemy and superheroes. In the chaos of post-invasion Iraq there are fortunes to be made and minds to be lost. The tone is saltily cynical, with a vein of satire throbbing just below the surface.
Where, by Kit Reed, Tor, RRP$25.99
The inhabitants of an island off the coast of South Carolina disappear mysteriously, transported to a kind of limbo. The loved ones left behind search for answers. It’s like a cool, cerebral version of Lost that unflinchingly lays bare the ugliness lurking in the human heart.
Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, RRP£18.99/RRP$26
Another masterpiece of future-building from Robinson. A vast starship travels to colonise a distant moon. Its mission fails but the crew’s attempts to salvage something from the disaster provide compelling drama. The author has an abiding faith in humankind’s ability to harness technology to our advantage.
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, Borough Press, RRP£20/William Morrow, RRP$35
The Moon explodes and the Earth ends, but a dogged band of survivors in an expanded International Space Station struggle to keep the guttering flame of humanity alive. Stephenson brings polymathic research and narrative flair to this remarkable piece of apocalyptic fiction.
Paris Up, Up And Away, by Hélène Druvert, Thames & Hudson, RRP£14.95/RRP$24.95
A delicate picture book using laser-cut silhouettes to evoke the French capital in all its romantic glory. Superb, both technically and aesthetically.
Asterix and the Missing Scroll, by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, translated by Anthea Bell, Orion, RRP£10.99/Asterix RRP$17.99
The indomitable Gaul is back in this second outing from Ferri and Conrad, stepping ably into the shoes vacated by original Asterix creators Goscinny and Uderzo. A chapter of Caesar’s memoirs goes missing in a witty, knockabout satire of the age of WikiLeaks.
Anyone But Ivy Pocket, by Caleb Krisp, Bloomsbury, RRP£10.99/Greenwillow, RRP$17.99
Narrators don’t come much more unreliable than Ivy Pocket. Unshakeably convinced of her own wonderfulness, lady’s maid Ivy fails to see how aggravating she is to others, but still achieves her goal of delivering a mystical diamond to a young aristocrat. The Moonstone with laughs.
Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99/Delacorte, RRP$16.99
Terrific science-out-of-control story from the author of Holes. A mutated form of a new organic biofuel escapes from the lab and wreaks havoc in the surrounding community. The tension is well sustained throughout, the characterisation acute.
Liquidator, by Andy Mulligan, David Fickling Books, RRP£12.99
The ever-inventive Mulligan turns his attention to interns. A group of classmates take up short assignments in the dreary adult world, only to be plunged into danger when one of them discovers a horrific secret behind a new soft drink called Liquidator.
The Last of the Spirits, by Chris Priestley, Bloomsbury, RRP£6.99/RRP$18.99
Priestley shows us Scrooge’s tale from a new angle, that of two starving children who are unlucky enough to cross his path. They are, of course, the boy named Ignorance and the girl named Want. An ingenious take on an evergreen fable.
Railhead, by Philip Reeve, OUP, RRP£9.99
This narrative of a teenage thief criss-crossing the universe on space-trains is thrilling — but its eeriest effects come via its examination of what it means to be human. Reeve creates a hauntingly beautiful world.
The Marvels, by Brian Selznick, Scholastic, RRP£16.99/RRP$32.99
Part graphic novel, part prose narrative, The Marvels is a puzzle-box of a book. What links the titular 18th-century acting dynasty with the boy Joseph, who in 1990 comes to live with his reclusive uncle in Spitalfields? A mystery wrapped in a love letter to a fast-vanishing London.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan, Corsair, RRP£14.99/Penguin, RRP$27.95
A New Yorker writer, Finnegan is best known for his coverage of conflicts and US poverty — but he has also been a life-long surf fanatic. Barbarian Days, a chronicle of his obsession as he travels from California to Hawaii, South Africa and Fiji, promises to become a set text for anyone interested in the sport.
Deep South, by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20/Eamon Dolan — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$29.95
Theroux’s journey through the southern states of his native US focuses not on the Gone with the Wind-style mansions of popular imagination but on the hardscrabble towns bypassed by development. Theroux finds warmth and beauty but also dire poverty.
A Mile Down, by David Vann, William Heinemann, RRP£18.99/Da Capo, RRP$14.95
On holiday in Turkey, Vann comes across the steel hull of a 90ft boat and, fulfilling a dream, he decides to rebuild it and sail the Mediterranean. What happens next is an extended disaster — an antidote to the usual run of escape-to-the-sun memoirs.
Fashion and style
Sporting Guide: Los Angeles 1897, by Liz Goldwyn, Regan Arts, RRP$29.99
Admired by fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu, Goldwyn’s book is a series of deeply researched but fictional tales about the business of prostitution in late 19th-century LA. Goldwyn — avid collector of antique lingerie and one of the most acquisitive couture clients in the world — writes with a candid imagination about a time when “vice ran the city”.
Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty, by Robert Lacey, Harper, RRP£20/RRP$29.99
A biography of the super-agent who built the Ford model empire, Lacey’s book provides a fascinating insight into the “matriarch of modelling” and her role in the making of the supermodel phenomenon. While Lacey doesn’t flinch from describing her more brutal professional behaviour, he is careful to record Ford’s contribution to fashion over a career spanning nearly 50 years.
Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Beyond, by Olia Hercules, Mitchell Beazley, RRP£25
Whatever your preconceptions about Ukrainian food, prepare to shed them. Hercules presents a bright cuisine with much influence from the Middle East, some delicious home cooking and terrific preservation techniques.
The Nordic Cookbook, by Magnus Nilsson, Phaidon, RRP£29.95/RRP$49.95
A wide-ranging survey of the food of the Nordic region, now so fashionable. Nilsson, the brains behind the Faviken restaurant, writes engagingly, not just about the traditional and occasionally scary stuff — the fermented shark and stuffed puffins — but also about national favourites that have sprung up in recent years, challenging our notions of “authenticity”.
The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer, by the Chanticleer Gardeners and R William Thomas, Timber Press, RRP£25/RRP$34.95
The ambitious title is justified by R William Thomas’s experience of working for 26 years at Longwood, before becoming head gardener of that other great North American garden, Chanticleer, in 2003. Anyone who has been seduced by Chanticleer’s deft use of colour, form and sculpture will find all the guidance they need.
The Magical World of Moss Gardening, by Annie Martin, Timber Press, RRP$34.95
Any conversation about the nuanced delights of moss gardening is usually overshadowed by lawn bores wanting to know how to eradicate the stuff. Here is the antidote. Martin’s whistle-stop survey of moss gardens from Japan to North America should convert even diehard moss-militants.
Oxford College Gardens, by Tim Richardson, Frances Lincoln, RRP£40
Richardson’s well-informed narrative and Andrew Lawson’s superb pictures conjure the gardens at their peak, from my colleague Robin Lane Fox’s “Euro-grass”-free border of colour and form at New College to Worcester’s wonderful planting by Simon Bagnall.
Editor of the Financial Times
In How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt tells of how technology in the form of the MP3 digital format brought the music industry to its knees. His book is a tour de force, delving into the criminal underworld of hackers and pilferers as well the complacent corporate boardroom. Shortlisted for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award.
Author of Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity
Mislaid by Nell Zink is an exquisite soufflé of a novel — effervescently absurdist and unrelentingly arch. But it’s carnal and satirical and American enough to be heartier than camp — it’s Ivy Compton-Burnett crossed with Mary Karr. A teenage lesbian has two kids with a caustic gay poet living in a Virginia swamp, then absconds with her pale blonde daughter and passes as black. The characters are just vehicles for sentences; but those sentences are so delicious that they remind you how pleasurable it can be to be bounced up out of realism into a lighter, bubblier place.
Chairman of Sequoia Capital and co-author with Sir Alex Ferguson of Leading
Interwoven with the inevitable recapitulation of a torrent of games, an oddly affecting self-portrait emerges from Commitment, Didier Drogba’s account of his footballing life. The image is that of a man who, after an unsettling childhood and almost a decade of toiling in football’s lower reaches, finally achieved the security for which he yearned: during all too few winters at Chelsea, the club he calls home; in Ivory Coast, the country of his childhood; and, most of all, with a woman with whom, since the age of 22, he has raised four children. Undercurrents of sensitivity and shyness course through this work — a surprising revelation from a man who, in his prime, seemed cut from bronze, but whose moral compass is touchingly calibrated.
The only thing wrong with the fourth volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet — the story of an intense, lethal friendship between two women — is that it is the last one. On finishing each of the volumes that follow two girls born in a violent, corrupt Naples neighbourhood in the 1950s as they grow up and compete for lovers, success and fame, there was the consolation of more to come. The Story of the Lost Child brings this beautifully translated literary soap opera to an enigmatic close, leaving you missing both Lila and Lenù, and marvelling at the scale of the damage that one woman can inflict on another.
The howling masterpiece of 2015 must surely be Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound. It is — I mean it — a howl, an outrage, and a sheer burst of particular talent. It is the kind of thing you want fiction to do, and the kind of thing you want to imagine it is doing. It tells the story of a woman who returns from the dead after having birthed a “shirt-like” human being who is ironically named “Beauty”. Kurniawan sharpens the story of Indonesia with an energy that is rare.
Author of The Face of Britain and FT contributing editor
“Gigantic above all in the capacity for joy” is the way Primo Levi characterises Rabelais — an unlikely choice of literary hero for Levi until one realises, from the magnificently compendious The Complete Works edited by Ann Goldstein, that lurking within the gravely poetic chronicler of torment was a man ravenous for life. All Levi’s great works of sorrow and solemnity are gathered here but also many surprises — vivid, witty meditations on, inter alia, earwigs, Ezra Pound, who “in order to make sure he was not understood even wrote in Chinese”, and his grandfather’s fabric shop in Turin, as well as some lovely poems. It’s time to stop treating Levi like the prompter of tears and to regard him instead as a composer of illuminations; the world’s enchantments set down beside its mysteries and terrors.
There’s no question that raising a son or daughter on the autism spectrum can be extraordinarily difficult. Now, in Uniquely Human by Barry Prizant and Tom Fields-Meyer, we finally have a book that provides parents and therapists with compassionate insights into these children’s most challenging behaviours, informed by the recollections of autistic adults. By viewing behaviours such as tantrums and self-injury as attempts to make sense of a world that feels overwhelming (instead of merely as “symptoms”), Prizant and Fields-Meyer enable parents to directly relieve their children’s sources of distress and focus on building on their strengths.
Editor of FT Weekend
Robert Harris, once a Fleet Street political editor, has channelled his knowledge of the nuances and narcissism of modern-day politics and cast it back into the world of Julius Caesar — a world that elevated back-stabbing to an epic level. I had overlooked the first two books of this trilogy of Cicero and started with the last, Dictator. It revolves around three powerful men, Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus, but Harris frames his book in the voyeuristic realities of Cicero’s everyday life (“Caesar’s naked hairless torso reclining on a massage table”) and the compromises he made to stay alive and engaged in the bloody sway of events.
Author of The Architect’s Apprentice
Not In God’s Name by Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, draws on history and theology to analyse the roots of religious-inspired violence and what he describes as “altruistic evil”. Dualistic ways of thinking lie at the core of religion, dividing humanity into tribes of “us” versus “them”. What is new, however, is an escalation of hostility and violence exacerbated by political and social conflicts, technology and power of networks. This is a powerful, compelling, timely book that does not deny the dark side of faith. Sacks underlines that extremists create more extremists but insists that it is not too late to stop this vicious cycle.
Given the important role that China is playing around the world, economically and increasingly technologically, we need to try to understand it — and keep an open mind about what we learn. The China Model by Daniel Bell does just this and provocatively asks whether China’s “political meritocracy” can offer a legitimate alternative to western democracy. The book challenges the parameters of the static economic debate, fine-tuning our understanding with insight into a model that is neither a “planned top-down system” nor an “emerging market system”. Bell is not an apologist for China but someone who teaches us to ask different questions. And these questions are fascinating.
Author of The Rise of the Robots, winner of the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
The End of Plenty by Joel Bourne is an engaging look at the challenges we are likely to face producing sufficient food in an age of unprecedented global population, environmental impact and climate change. For someone who has been focused primarily on the implications of accelerating information technology, this book was a stark reminder that Moore’s Law does not apply to food production technology and that there is a very real risk we may be headed towards a future in which digital abundance coexists with a scarcity of tangible resources that are essential for human survival and wellbeing.
Author of Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble
In Black Earth, Timothy Snyder forces us to look afresh at the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Hitler wanted to erase the identity of neighbouring nations. So did Stalin. Abolishing a nation made its citizens vulnerable. Snyder’s arguments provide an important warning from history. We only have to look at the collapse of nation states in the Middle East and the attempted annihilation by Isis of the Yazidis and other religious groups to know that the dangers are still with us.
Author of At Hawthorn Time, shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Novel Award
Sometimes a writer at the peak of their powers expands what literature is able to achieve, and this was the case with Claudia Rankine’s breathtakingly subtle dissection of the daily poison of structural racism. The experimental form of Citizen: An American Lyric helps it go far beyond the personal, cleverly playing with the reader’s assumptions until our sympathy and our anger are engaged — and our unexamined biases are revealed. It’s a staggering example of the power of poetry to express something long unspoken — and to leave readers changed by the experience.
Alexander McCall Smith
Author of The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency)
Rosemary Goring’s After Flodden introduced us to her talents as a historical novelist. Now she cements her reputation with Dacre’s War, a wonderfully exciting — and romantic — account of struggles on the English/Scottish border in the 16th century. People misunderstand Scotland if they think that the Highlands had a monopoly of lawlessness; the Highlanders could teach the Borderers nothing when it came to fierceness and cunningness. If you want to understand why relations between England and Scotland have not always been easy, then Goring’s superb novel will help. Walter Scott would have enjoyed this greatly.
Physicist and author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
In Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World:The Discovery of Modern Science and Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question:Finding Nature’s Deep Design, two Nobel physicists give two astonishingly different accounts of the history of science, from antiquity to their own discoveries. Weinberg takes an unapologetically hard-headed stance, where philosophy, beauty and so forth are denounced as misleading. Wilczek sketches a dreamy vision, where beauty and harmony are essential ingredients of the quest for knowledge. Who is right? Both: this is the magic of science, which coherently combines wildly diverse skills. Weinberg is a father of electroweak theory, Wilczek of strong interaction. Still unsolved is gravity: what are the skills we need to solve it? We do not know yet.