MY FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2016

December 19th 2016

The political upheavals of 2016 will be captured for many years to come through books and publishing. I enjoyed my wide reading over the year, while still feeling that events and crises were racing ahead of publishers and writers.

I revelled in researching and writing my own book – Scotland the Bold – on the country, its politics, culture and ideas and prospects for change. Writing at book length always gives you permission and discipline to read widely – and beyond narrow subject categorisation – which is a joy. Anyway, without further to do, here are my highlights of the year …..

SCOTLAND

Chris Leslie, Disappearing Glasgow: A Photographic Journey, Freight Books.

A stunning book. One of social history, failed hopes and lives and communities which lived and disappeared often without any record – other than Chris Leslie and his photographs.

Madeleine Bunting, Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Granta Books.

A moving tale of remembering, recovering and reclaiming, while finding yourself and love in the Hebrides. Gives a whole new understanding to Scotland’s North West frontier.

Simon Barrow and Mike Small (eds), Scotland 2021, Bella Caledonia/Ekklesia.

Ambitious collection on Scotland after the 2016 election and SNP victory, Brexit and possibilities of independence, social change and a different politics.

Katherine Trebeck, George Kerevan and Stephen Boyd, Tackling Timorous Economics: How Scotland’s Economy Could Work Better for Us All, Luath Press.

Scotland has an economic deficit of thinking; one which has grown with the Scottish Parliament and its accruing of more powers – a missing ingredient in the Scottish Nationalist prospectus. This book begins to address this and challenge the grip of conventional economic assumptions.

Alastair McIntosh, Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey, Birlinn.

Scotland (and humanity) needs to cultivate counter-stories – going beyond the immediate and material. This does that in spades – combining McIntosh’s humanity with his quest for deeper meaning as he visits Harris and Lewis.

BREXIT

Tim Shipman, All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Classes, William Collins.

The most comprehensive of all the Brexit campaign accounts so far by the Sunday Times Political Editor. No doubt we will be studying this for years.

BRITISH STATE

Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins.

A very different take on British politics and Prime Ministers, diplomacy and intelligence. Makes the case that, until Brexit, the three biggest disasters as PMs in the 20th century all freelanced at diplomacy and intelligence: Chamberlain (Munich), Eden (Suez) and Blair (Iraq).

Conor Gearty, On Fantasy Island: Britain, Europe, and Human Rights, Oxford University Press.

How discussion of human rights, Britain and Europe have been shrouded in myths about past and present.

BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY

Peter Mangold. What the British Did: Two Centuries in the Middle East, I. B. Tauris.

Britain’s two-century-old involvement in the region. From fighting Napoleon at Alexandria, to the invention of, and then, multiple invasions and interventions, in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – all chronicled and summarised.

BRITISH HISTORY

John Bew, Citizen Clem: A biography of Attlee. riverrun.

First comprehensive biography of Labour’s greatest Prime Minister since 1982. What comes over is Attlee’s quiet radicalism, conservatism as an individual and in how he did much of his politics and patriotism.

IRELAND

Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley (eds), Scotland and the Easter Rising, Luath Press.

Diverse collection on the Easter Rising of 1916 and Scottish connections. Contains Ian Bell’s last essay on his relative James Connelly.

AMERICAN POLITICS

David Cay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump, Melville House.

Johnston has studied Trump for over thirty years: from the Atlantic City casino scandals of the early 1980s. Trump comes across as both a throwback to the past and a warning of a broken future.

RUSSIA

Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism, Yale University Press.

Putin’s emergence as a popular strongman and global player is given full context in this study of Russian nationalism post-Soviet Union. Clover was for years the Financial Times Moscow correspondent and knows the human stories as well as history.

AFTER THE SOVIET UNION

Sveltana Alexievich, Second Hand Time, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

An alternative interpretation on the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism through the voices of its citizens. It is all here: a polyphonic orchestra of anger, confusion, loss, and in places, nostalgia for Communism.

IMMIGRATION AND XENOPHOBIA

Zygmunt Bauman, Strangers at Our Door, Polity Press.

Bauman on the moral panics of our age: fear of immigrations and migration.

Dave Rich, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism, Biteback.

Many will want to dismiss this argument, but part of the left has a problem, and Rich has catalogued it: from the Corbynistas to the alliance between Islamists and a section of the left.

GEO-POLITICS

Richard J. Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, Allen Lane.

Europe from Waterloo to Sarajevo: from the height of European imperialism to the beginning of its implosion in the so-called ‘Great War’.

Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931, Allen Lane.

A tour de force by economic historian Adam Tooze covering the end of World War One and the cumulative crises which led to the great depression. One of the chief culprits in this account is American isolationism.

Tim Marshall, Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags, Elliott and Thompson.

Follow-up to his ‘Prisoners of Geography’. Study of the histories and importance of flags. Who knew that planet earth had a collective flag apart from the UN?

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, New York Review of Books.

A timely philosophical study of the power and appeal of reaction.

ECONOMICS AND THE FUTURE OF WORK

Ryan Avent, The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power and Status in the Twenty-First Century, St. Martin’s Press.

The digital revolution, automation and artificial intelligence are on the cusp of posing bigger threats to how we think of work and life than our great great grandparents and how they were disorientated by the pace of change.

CULTURE

Michael Bhaskar, Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess, Piatkus.

Why is ‘curation’ a buzzword and concept? Its appeal and limitations explored.

Nicholas Carr, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations, W.W. Norton and Co.

An alternative take on all things digital – questioning the utopian prescriptions of the techno-determinists.

MUSIC

Barney Hoskyns (ed.), Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology, Constable.

Essays on Joni throughout her career – from album and concert reviews, to appraisals and interviews.

Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, Picador.

How musicians acted against racism, reaction and the politics of hatred in the 1970s and 1980s.

Philip Norman, Paul McCartney: The Biography, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Macca finally given the serious biography he deserves. While welcome it still doesn’t fully come to terms with the enigma and paradoxes of the man.

TELEVISION

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, Simon and Schuster.

Was Seinfeld the greatest TV comedy ever as some of fans claim? It pushed the boundaries of comedy and was utterly compelling. This tells us how it happened. Shame to think Breitbart head Steve Bannon makes money from this genius.

MEANING OF LIFE

Marceline Loridan-Ivens, But You Did Not Come Back, Monthly Press.

A father and daughter are separated in 1944: he to Auschwitz and she to Birkenau. This is her story – one which has taken her seventy years to write.

FUTURE OF HUMANITY

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harvill Secker.

After his acclaimed ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind’ he now turns his attention to our future. And possible demise.

CATCHING UP ON

Sidney Hook, The Hero in History, Secker and Warburg, 1943.

The idea of leadership in social context. Questioning of the entire notion of ‘heroes’.

David Dilks (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945, Cassell 1971.

Breathtaking diaries from the head of Britain’s Foreign Office covering the period from the end of appeasement to the Second World War, Britain ‘standing alone’, the advent of global war, and the UK’s eventual marginalisation (by the US and Soviets).

TO BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS

Arron Banks, The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Guerilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign, Biteback.

As if the subtitle wasn’t enough to put you off, in a book laid out like a campaign diary, Banks tells us in the preface that he didn’t keep a diary. Instead, all this was constructed after the campaign by Daily Mail journalist Isabel Oakeshott from emails and tweets. This is where the conceits and disinformation of populism take you.

A LATE ADDITION

Andrew Solomon, Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World, Chatto and Windus.

Solomon is a trained psychologist and academic, and brings his interest in people, and curiosity about ideas and culture to investigating Russia, China and several African countries (South Africa, Libya, Rwanda, Ghana). To call this ‘travel writing’ is an insult to its multi-disciplinary intelligence and humanity.

AND TO END ON A POSITIVE NOTE

Scottish football has been crying out for serious analysis, writing and coverage. And now it has – thanks to the superb Nutmeg edited and brought together by Ally Palmer. Produced four times a year, each issue is packed with articles, research and photography, all beautifully produced. A subscription would be a great gift to any thinking football fan.

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