The best books of 2017 are about music, nicotine and the tsunami in Japan
Dec 9th 2017
The Retreat of Western Liberalism. By Edward Luce. Grove Atlantic; 234 pages; $24. Little Brown; £16.99
Few doubt that something big has happened in Western politics over the past two years, but nobody is sure what. Turmoil in Washington and London contrasts with centrist stability in Paris and (mostly) in Berlin. In this grim diagnosis Edward Luce, a Washington-based commentator, argues that the liberal order cannot be fixed without a clear view of what has gone wrong.
Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System. By Alexander Betts and Paul Collier. Oxford University Press; 288 pages; $18.95. Allen Lane; £20
Lost in the row over Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 were the millions of refugees who stayed in the developing world, unwilling or unable to journey to richer countries. Growing up in a refugee camp often means little education and no work. Two experts at Oxford University present the first comprehensive attempt in years to rethink from first principles a system that has long been hidebound by hand-wringing and old ideas.
The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. By David Goodhart. Hurst; 278 pages; $24.95 and £20
“Somewheres”, David Goodhart writes, are rooted, socially conservative and suspicious of the constant churn. By contrast, “Anywheres” are cosmopolitan, socially liberal, internationalist and comfortable with change. In creating a new political taxonomy, the British journalist and founder of Prospect magazine provides a useful way to think about new cleavages in Britain and elsewhere in the West. Its influence is visible everywhere.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone. By Richard Lloyd Parry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 276 pages; $27. Jonathan Cape; £16.99
Of the 18,500 people who perished in the Japanese tsunami in 2011, 75 were children who died at school. But a single school accounted for 74 of those deaths. This mesmerising account of the 120-foot-high wave and its aftermath, by the Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief of the Times, explores the uncharacteristicly fierce reaction of the dead children’s parents to official evasion. In the process it tells you more about Japan than any conventional history. The finest work of narrative non-fiction to be published this year.
Grant. By Ron Chernow. Penguin Press; 1,104 pages; $40. Head of Zeus; £30
The historian who inspired “Hamilton”, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, argues that America’s most improbable president has been badly misunderstood. Instead of being seen as the overlord of a corrupt administration (though it never touched him personally), he should be lauded for the integration of the union after the civil war and his insistence on naming blacks, Jews and native Americans to federal positions.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds. By Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton; 362 pages; $28.95. Allen Lane; £25
A fascinating intellectual biography of the Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two very different men whose work at the intersection of psychology and economics grows more influential by the year.
Ali: A Life. By Jonathan Eig. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 630 pages; $30. Simon & Schuster; £25
Muhammad Ali often claimed to be the greatest boxer of all time, and he was right. Only a handful of athletes reach the pinnacle of their discipline; he was the only one who threw it all away to do what was unpopular but principled. A fine account of why, when Ali died, he was remembered not only as boxing’s most decorated and enthralling heavyweight, but also for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war as a rebellion against white supremacy.
The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. By Maya Jasanoff. Penguin Press; 400 pages; $30. William Collins; £25
Brought up speaking Polish and French, Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski did not learn English until he was 21. But as Joseph Conrad he became one of the finest English writers. “Heart of Darkness” is his most famous book. More important, as Maya Jasanoff shows so well, he was the first novelist of globalisation.
Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge. By Erica Wagner. Bloomsbury; 365 pages; $28 and £25
A biography about connections and disconnections—about the man who built what, at the time of its opening, was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Roebling also fought all his life to emerge from the shadow of a cold and domineering father. A masterful psychological study about duty and drive.
Toscanini. By Harvey Sachs. W.W. Norton; 944 pages; $39.95 and £29.99
Drawing on a wide range of new evidence, including unknown letters and the archives of many of the opera houses that Arturo Toscanini worked with, including La Scala, Harvey Sachs has written a weighty and highly enjoyable account of one of the greatest conductors, a man still renowned for his pursuit of perfection.
Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time. By Hilary Spurling. Hamish Hamilton; 528 pages; £25
Anthony Powell came from a brilliant generation of English writers, including George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene—yet he may now be the least read of them all. Hilary Spurling’s long-awaited life of one of Britain’s most perceptive novelists of class, best known for the 12-volume “Dance to the Music of Time”, is an exemplary literary biography. On virtually every page it is colourful, funny and pointedly aphoristic.
The Hate Race: A Memoir. By Maxine Beneba Clarke. Corsair; 261 pages; £18.99
The child of Jamaican/Guyanese parents who left Britain for Australia writes the book she wished she had been able to read when she was growing up in the Sydney suburbs, where “racism was as common as cornflakes”. A bestseller when it first came out in Australia, it deserves to be more widely read.
Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8. By Naoki Higashida. Random House; 206 pages; $27. Sceptre; £14.99
An unorthodox guide by a young Japanese man, who at 13 wrote a heartfelt account of how it feels like to be autistic. David Mitchell, an English novelist, and his wife, Keiko Yoshida, translated the text for their autistic son’s carers and helped get the book published in over 30 languages, making Mr Higashida probably the most widely read Japanese author after the master-novelist, Haruki Murakami.
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. By Anne Applebaum. Doubleday; 496 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £25
A meticulously researched analysis proving that the famine in Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s was part of a deliberate campaign by Josef Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership to crush Ukrainian political aspirations by starving the actual or potential nationalists into submission to the Soviet order.
The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. By Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro. Simon & Schuster; 608 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £30
The post-war liberal order was underpinned by a movement to make the waging of aggressive war illegal. Two American academics argue that this principle is now seriously under threat.
The Unwomanly Face of War. By Svetlana Alexievich. Random House; 384 pages; $30. Penguin Modern Classics; £12.99
An oral history, first published in 1985 but only now translated into English, as told by women who enlisted in the Soviet army straight from school, learning to kill and die before they learned to live or give life. By one of the most gifted writers of her generation.
Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister. By Nicholas Shakespeare. Harvill Secker; 528 pages; £20
It is hard to imagine Britain without the jowly Winston Churchill at the helm during the second world war. Yet in May 1940 Neville Chamberlain’s government, with its majority of 213, seemed virtually unassailable. An eloquent study in how quickly the political landscape can change—and history with it.
Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017. By Ian Black. Atlantic Monthly Press; 608 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25
A well-known British journalist offers a detailed account of how the Israelis and Palestinians are still haunted by their history. The Balfour Declaration was just the start of it.
Belonging: The Story of the Jews, 1492-1900. By Simon Schama. Ecco; 800 pages; $39.99. Bodley Head; £25
The story of the Jews between 1492 and 1900, told as a series of vivid biographies. In the hands of a master colourist, this is history as a portrait gallery. Roll on the final volume in the series.
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. By Yuri Slezkine. Princeton University Press; 1,128 pages; $39.95 and £29.95
The remarkable tale of an enormous block of flats that served as home to communism’s true believers. A story that is as Russian in scope as it is symbolic of what Russia and the Russian revolution eventually became.
Against the Grain. By James Scott. Yale University Press; 336 pages; $26 and £20
An interesting summation of recent research into why the first states did not develop until a long time after humans stopped being nomads and agriculture had become the norm.
The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. By Walter Scheidel. Princeton University Press; 528 pages; $35 and £27.95
An Austrian-born historian, now at Stanford University, argues that only catastrophic events really reduce inequality. Depressing and convincing.
Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy. By Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. Princeton University Press; 288 pages; $29.95 and £24.95
Businesses in rich countries are increasingly investing in “intangible” assets, including research and development, branding and public relations, and less in “tangible” ones, such as machinery. The growing importance of intangible assets plays a part in some of the big trends that are gripping rich economies, from rising income inequality to weak growth in productivity.
Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street. By Sheelah Kolhatkar. Random House; 344 pages; $28
The rise, fall and rise of Steven Cohen—a brief history of SAC Capital and how its boss inspired Bobby Axelrod of “Billions”.
Janesville: An American Story. By Amy Goldstein. Simon & Schuster; 368 pages; $27 and £18.99
The riveting story of what happened to a company town and the families who lived and worked there when General Motors decided to shut down its assembly plant in a city in southern Wisconsin.
Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism. By Bhu Srinivasan. Penguin Press; 576 pages; $30
A delightful tour through the businesses and industries that turned America into the world’s biggest economy—by a hard-working immigrant who himself became an entrepreneur. A paean to progress.
Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy. By Douglas Irwin. University of Chicago Press; 832 pages; $35
Trade-policy wonks are gluttons for punishment. In good times, their pet topic is dismissed as dull. In bad, they find trade being faulted for everything. A Dartmouth College professor sets the record straight, and in the process elegantly debunks a host of trade-policy myths.
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. By Ian Johnson. Pantheon; 448 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25
As ordinary people (and party leaders) are trying to workout what it means to be Chinese in the modern world, a Canadian- born academic shows how a resurgence of faith is quietly changing the country.
Dream Hoarders: How the American Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. By Richard Reeves. Brookings Institution Press; 196 pages; $24
Which of America’s social fault-lines is the most dangerous? Race? Culture? Wealth? This last offers part of an answer. Having grabbed their piece of prosperity, the upper-middle class are fighting to keep it. A British scholar, based in New York, argues in detail why it is this 10%—rather than the 1% of lore—who are the main beneficiaries (and the principal cause) of inequality in America.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. By Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Dey Street; 288 pages; $27.99. Bloomsbury; £20
Big data, says Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist for Google, provides new sources of information. It captures what people actually do or think, rather than what they choose to tell pollsters; it helps researchers home in on and compare demographic or geographical subsets; and it allows for super fast randomised controlled trials. This book argues that the web will revolutionise social science just as the microscope and telescope transformed the natural sciences.
The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. By Elizabeth Currid- Halkett. Princeton University Press; 254 pages; $29.95 and £24.95
Rather than filling their garages with flashy cars, today’s rich devote their budgets to less visible but more valuable ends: education, domestic services and cultural capital. A professor at the University of Southern California shows why it is so difficult to stop the privileged position of the elites becoming more entrenched.
Nicotine. By Gregor Hens. Translated by Jen Calleja. Other Press; 176 pages; $16.95. Fitzcarraldo Editions; £12.99
Cigarettes function as punctuation for life, argues Gregor Hens, a German author and translator. They make it coherent and add drama, inserting commas, semi-colons and ellipses (and, in the end, an inarguable and often premature full stop). Smoking is bad for you, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of “Les Miserables”. By David Bellos. Farrah, Straus and Giroux; 336 pages; $27. Particular Books; £20
From the humane treatment of ex-offenders to the care of street children Victor Hugo’s epic novel, “Les Misérables”, spearheaded calls for reform and contributed to “the future improvement of society”. Few books really change the world. This one did, long before the musical broke box office records.
Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. By Chris Thomas. PublicAffairs; 320 pages; $28. Allen Lane; £20
Humans have consigned species to extinction at an alarming rate. But hybridisation and speciation is happening quickly, too. An ecologist at the University of York shows how humans are bringing about a great new age of biological diversity. Extinctions ain’t what they used to be.
Dawn of the New Everything. By Jaron Lanier. Henry Holt; 351pages; $30. Bodley Head; £20
An eccentric, but visionary, tech pioneer recalls a life spent in virtual reality and reflects on the growing hubris of Silicon Valley.
Tamed: Ten Species that Changed our World. By Alice Roberts. Hutchinson; 368 pages; £20
For lovers of “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Sapiens” comes a new, deceptively simple book. Alice Roberts, an anatomist and palaeopathologist, uses the story of how apples, cattle, dogs, horses and rice came to be domesticated to tell a wider story about humans’ long history.
Lincoln in the Bardo. By George Saunders. Random House; 368 pages; $28. Bloomsbury; £18.99
Abraham Lincoln’s son dies young and enters a multi-chorus Buddhistic underworld. One of the year’s most original and electrifying novels.
White Tears. By Hari Kunzru. Knopf; 288 pages; $26.95. Hamish Hamilton; £14.99
A Londoner now living in New York, Hari Kunzru introduces two unforgettable characters to illustrate how black music came to be imbued with the spirit of the blues. His imagery resonates with the racial politics of modern life.
Austral. By Paul McAuley. Gollancz; 288 pages; £14.99
A chase thriller set in late 21st-century Antarctica that combines elements of Jack London, J.G. Ballard and William Gibson. A significant contribution to writing about the anthropocene.
The Seventh Function of Language. By Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages; $27. Harvill Secker; £16.99
A conspiracy thriller about the death of the French literary theorist, Roland Barthes, that draws on the work of Jacques Derrida and Dan Brown with tongue firmly in cheek—to hilarious effect.
The Golden Legend. By Nadeem Aslam. Knopf; 319 pages; $27.95. Faber & Faber; £16.99
Too much political exposition can be the death of fiction. Not so here. In his fifth novel, a British-Pakistani writer offers a richly imagined lesson in how to make great literature out of despotism.
Stay with Me. By Ayobami Adebayo. Knopf; 272 pages; $25.95. Canongate Books; £14.99
A gut-wrenching tale of how wanting a child can wreck a woman, a marriage and a community. Only 29, Ayobami Adebayo is surely a writer to watch.
Exit West. By Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead; 240 pages; $26. Hamish Hamilton; £14.99
A sharply pointed story about migration that came within a whisker of winning the 2017 Man Booker prize for fiction. The author of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” has written another novel of our time.
Fever Dream. By Samanta Schweblin. Translated by Megan McDowell. Riverhead; 192 pages; $25. OneWorld; £7.99
A slim novel about environmental disaster and the outer limits of love. Subtle, dreamy and indelibly creepy.
Compass. By Mathias Enard. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. New Directions; 464 pages; $26.95. Fitzcarraldo Editions; £14.99
Over one night a French scholar muses on the differences between West and East. The winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt on love, longing and otherness.