My reading this last year has been pretty random, and my faves are not confined to these books, but these are the ones still sitting on my desk for no good or bad reason. So these will pass as my books of the year.
Firstly, my book of the year has to be Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge (Cape). I’d never paid him much attention until I saw him being interviewed at length by Ash Sarkar on Novara Media. Wait a minute, here’s a former Conservative Minister engaging fully with a Muslim Marxist… The book is very well written and quite scary about the nature of real parliamentary politics. Things like there were only nine key activists in his Conservative Party in Penrith and the Border, or like when he was appointed Minister for Prisons he knew nothing at all about prisons or like when, a known expert on the Indian subcontinent, the Conservative Government gave him Africa for his brief… And when he was in charge of Africa the civil servants didn’t bother to invite him to the meeting to discuss a coup in Zimbabwe. This was government by chaos, and few come out of it well. Stewart did get stuck into improving prisons though, in his whirligig tour through department after department.
Comrades Come Rally: Manchester Communists in the 1930s and 1940s by Michael Crowley (Bookmarks) is about a world we have lost: a world of trade unionists, Jewish lefties, folk singers, bibliophiles, women workers, Spanish Civil War volunteers – the network of activists based in the old CPGB that made Manchester a radical centre at that time.
On the fiction front there’s The Painter’s Friend
by Howard Cunnell (Picador), the story of an artist who ends up living on the water, in an island community of lost souls which is under threat from developers. Everyone has their own story, and there are moments of despair and of solidarity. It is fiction but I can’t help but feel there’s been many real life situations like this over the last few years.
Kairos by Kenny Erpenbeck (Granta) is perhaps my favourite novel of the year. Warning though, the core relationship in the book is one of coercive control of a young woman by an older man. The married man is of course a bastard, but there’s also a sense of what might be lost as the GDR collapses. In Siblings by Brigitte Reimann (Penguin) the GDR is still functioning. The main character is a young woman artist employed to teach painting to factory workers. The sibling aspect is about the way that three siblings deal with the GDR. One has already defected…
In one of the books – I forget which! – a visit to West Germany shows the shops full of goods, luxury everywhere, but homeless beggars too – something that would never happen on the other side of the wall.
Buchi Emecheta came to Nottingham, what?, forty years ago for a packed reading at the old WEA on Shakespeare Street. There were perhaps 150 people there. I’d not read anything of hers since then, but the reissue of her novels drew me in to The Joys of Motherhood. The book opens with a woman running away, and there’s a lot to run away from in this Nigerian novel. The bride price, a house slave being killed because she would not willingly jump into the grave of her recently deceased owner, minimal education for girls, funerals that take years to pay off, polygamy… traditional Nigerian life was as patriarchal as it could get, but did things improve with the a money economy, the move from village to Lagos, to law and order? The book gets more interesting then, with conscription of men to fight for Britain in the war against Germany (the men now knowing what side they might be on), the start of a discussion on independence, a developing Nigerian diaspora, intermarriage but also conflict between Yoruba and Igbo, the difficulties of pastoralists… And the joy of motherhood? “The joy of being a mother was the joy of giving all to your children, they said.” Maybe not.
This year Claire Keegan is no longer the author of the year – though her novella, short story really, So Late in the Day is worth reading, This year it’s Ann Patchett. Bel Canto (4th Estate) is probably her best known book, in which a group of South American terrorists/freedom fighters take over a Government residency expecting to catch the Vice President and negotiate for their cause. He’s not at the function so they find themselves in control of an opera singer, a Japanese businessman and a cast of others. The negotiations drag on and on, and on, with the terrorists and their charges finding ways of being together… one terrorist takes up opera. How will it end? Patchett keeps us guessing, but we engage with her characters as they engage with each other. Patchett’s These Precious Days (Bloomsbury) probably would not have been published if Patchett was not already a famous writer, but fortunately she is and it has been. The subjects range from Snoopy to Patchett’s views of the covers of her books internationally, including Bel Canto. The stand out essay though is the one that gives the book title. Patchett gets to know Tom Hanks’ PA, Sooki. They become friends, with Sooki moving in to see out the COVID pandemic – and possibly her life, as she had pancreatic cancer. It’s a marvellous invocation of female friendship.
We know that the author of Clouds over Paris (Pushkin) did die. Felix Hartlaub was a German soldier who did not survive the war.. This book comprises his notebooks about his time in Paris in the German occupation. He did nothing bad, just observed what was going on. The book is slight, the author’s casual observations are those of a travel writer abroad in a strange city. But he is a close observer and the book adds something to the category of what ordinary Germans did or thought during the war. He would, it is clear, have been a great writer, but this anti-Nazi German did not survive the war, missing presumed dead in Berlin in 1945.
Two more, and that will be enough. Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
(Penguin) has a large cast and we get to know them. In the Deep South John Singer, a deaf mute, becomes the confidant of many people, Black and white. Like McCullers Singer is – well, probably is – gay, many times an outsider. The others who float through the book include a hardworking but despairing Black doctor, teenagers, the owner of an all night cafe where the lost souls of that town turn up. Any one of the characters could form the basis of a good novel. McCullers offers them all to us. Maybe, typing these words, this
was my book of the year.
Finally, let’s get a little more specialist with Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews and the Holocaust by Ari Joskowicz (Princeton). For many reasons – cultural, political, economic – the industrial scale murder of Roma and Sinti people in WW2 has been barely covered, either by the survivors or by outside commentators, compared to other aspects of the Holocaust. The late Donald Kenrick’s work is worth searching out if this subject interests you. The strength of Rain and Ash, however, is in its detailed description of how Roma and Sinti people worked with Jewish organisations to seek recognition of the genocide they experienced. Indeed they had to fight to have it understood that Roma and Sinti people were persecuted on racial grounds.
So, enough… it’s been a good year for reading. This piece could have been a lot longer, but I did not want to try your patience.
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