MY FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2015

December 24th 2015

NEW BOOKS:

SCOTLAND

Project Fear: How an Unlikely Alliance left a Kingdom United but a Country Divided, Joe Pike, Biteback

A brilliant access all areas account of the chaos of the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the indyref. To think there was an even more Armageddon-ish‘Project Fear’!

Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland: Male Homosexuality, Religion and Society, Jeffrey Meek, Palgrave Macmillan

At long last a serious study of Scottish gay culture (focusing just on gay men) and in particular the period between Wolfenden (1957) and decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales (1967) and Scotland (1980).

The Spaces of Fiction: Voices from Scotland in a Post-Devolution Age, Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon, Association for Scottish Literary Studies

French scholar turns her attention to fiction (after a study of Alasdair Gray) and finds a diffuse, diverse Scotland telling particular and universal stories.

Demanding Democracy: The Case for a Scottish Media, Christopher Silver, Word Power Books

Thoughtful, non-partisan exploration of public life in Scotland; good on context, history and traditions, with suggestions for change. And produced by the wonderful Word Power Books in Edinburgh – a bookshop, an imprint and an inspiration.

BRITISH POLITICS

British Labour Leaders, Charles Clarke and Toby S. James (eds); British Conservative Leaders, Charles Clarke, Toby S. James, Tim Bale and Patrick Diamond, both Biteback

These books (along with one on the Liberals) cover every Labour and Tory leader since the origins of their parties (minus Corbyn). All done sympathetically and with a critical eye (with a forthcoming SNP volume by myself and James Mitchell in the series).

Get It Together: Why We Deserve a Better Politics, Zoe Williams, Hutchinson

Written on the assumption the Tories would lose the 2015 election, this showcases the seismic chasm between the potential for a reforming, radical politics which takes on the right and Tories and self-defeating politics offered by Labour for decades.

Election Notebook: The inside story of the battle over Britain’s future and my personal battle to report it, Nick Robinson, Bantham House

A moving and thoughtful book covering the indyref’s last stages to Cameron’s election victory and Robinson finding out and coming to terms with having cancer.

POLITICS AND IDEAS

The Essential Hirschman, Albert O. Hirschman, Princeton University Press

Hirschman gave the world ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’ – a book on the limits of left and right. This collection covers that and his awareness from the late 1960s that the changemakers were not the left, but emerging new right.

Is God Happy? Selected Essays, Leszek Kolakowski, Basic Books

Author of the three volume set ‘Main Currents of Marxism’, Kolakowski’s writings questioned orthodoxies in his homeland Poland and the Western left. Famous for a 1970s exchange with E.P. Thompson on the meaning of socialism.

HISTORY

The Past is a Foreign Country Revisited, David Lowenthal, Cambridge University Press

A classic text revisited and updated. Who creates and owns the past, and how do we understand multiple pasts and interpretations?

DIARIES/LETTERS

The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943, Gabriel Gorodetsky (ed.), Yale University Press

A gripping read from cover to cover. Stalin’s diplomat in London chronicles English high society with an acute eye while the world marches to war. A real revelation and an important historical account.

Affirming Letters 1975-97, Isaiah Berlin, Chatto and Windus

The last of four volumes; wide-ranging covering all the Cold War and its end, the Holocaust and the nature of the Soviet Union: a fitting tribute to his European, Jewish, liberal intellect.

BIOGRAPHY

Sinatra: The Chairman, James Kaplan, Sphere

Kaplan’s second and final volume from the 1953 comeback to the end. Filled with detail and insight on the complexity that was Frank: artistry, sensitivity and brutalness.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography: Volume Two: Everything She Wants, Charles Moore, Allen Lane

Second of three volume ‘official’ biog; Moore really gets into Thatcher’s head and heart – and invites you to identify with (!) and understand his heroine.

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics, Tim Marshall, Elliott and Thompson

I came across Marshall as the drumbeat of war in Syria escalated talking TV punditry that made sense and had historical context. Very good primer to geo-politics and why geography matters in it.

ECONOMICS AND GENDER

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics, Katrine Marcal, Portobello Books

Short, very readable account of the masculinist assumptions of economic calculus and the need for a feminist economics.

CULTURE

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle, Penguin Press

Not an anti-digital treatise, but a call for contemplation, slowness, quiet and making time for real one-to-one human contact as fundamental to who we are.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Don McCullin: The Definitive Collection, Don McCullin with introduction by Harold Evans, Jonathan Cape

Superb, challenging collection of photojournalism. From a different age of media and when the Sunday Times magazine was about more than froth.

MUSIC AND POP CULTURE

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley, Faber and Faber

Stanley (of Saint Etienne band fame) covers the whole terrain of pop music from pre-Elvis to contemporary with passion, knowledge and never hiding his own prejudices. I got into various groups because of this including the intoxicating ESG – but Steely Dan fans be warned.

Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iphone: 125 Years of Pop Music, Peter Doggett, Bodley Head

Tries to cover too much (the last 125 years) and a bit too serious, but with lots of love and insight, and brings jazz, crooning singers and more into the story.

SPIRITUALITY

In Search of the Spiritual: Gabriel Marcel, Psychoanalysis and the Sacred, Paul Marcus, Karmac Books

An exploration of philosophy and an engagement between faith and science with consequences for both, which is also about the differences and similarities between different faiths. Insights on hope, grace, humility, and terminal illness.

FICTION

Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes, MacLehose

A tour de force. Hitler arrives somehow in modern Germany as the Fuhrer of old with the same views and people think him an impersonator and satirist of uber-right wing views and give him his own prime time TV show. About the myth of Hitler and the power of mass media.

I Love Dick, Chris Kraus, Tuskar Book Press

Seminal novel about relationships in modern America. Carries with it a lot of hype and baggage, but it explores what it is to be a woman, fantasy and the real and unreal nature of relationships.

DISAPPOINTING BOOKS

The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination, Dominic Sandbrook, Faber and Faber

This isn’t a cultural history of Britain, omitting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and excludes large swathes of England and ‘national imagination’ such as large parts of punk and the Manchester post-punk scene.

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Roger Scruton, Bloomsbury

Disappointing from one of the leading conservative thinkers in England. Often (but not always) little more than a hatchet job on left thinkers.

OLDER BOOKS DISCOVERED:

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles, Peter Doggett, Bodley Head 2009

I have a self-denying ordinance on reading more books on the Beatles (and the Nazis) unless there is something new in them. Read this following Doggett’s book on pop; explores the tangled web of Beatle business relationships post-break.

Troublesome Business: The Labour Party and the Irish Question, Geoffrey Nell, Pluto Press 1982

Labour have had a difficult relationship with Ireland for as long as both have existed. Comprehensive analysis of what and why it has so often gone wrong.

The Left in Britain 1956-68, David Widgery (ed.), Penguin 1976

The left as historical document. From a time when a broad left still felt the future was theirs to be taken and shaped.

The Problem of Sovereignty, Harold Laski, Yale University Press 1917

Laski was for a period a Labour MP and even Chair of the NEC who Attlee put down in 1945 with his ‘a period of silence on your part would be welcome’ riposte. Also an academic, he wrote on the myths of sovereignty long before fashionable. Nearly 100 years old, strangely contemporary given the Scottish and Brexit votes.

Pages of Experience: Photography 1947-1987, Polygon/Third Eye Centre 1988; Gorbal’s Children: A Study in Photographs, Richard Drew 1990, both by Joseph McKenzie

McKenzie passed away earlier this year and left a wealth of photos and social record of post-war Scotland. These are two beautiful collections long out of print; and hopefully there will be a posthumous McKenzie collection soon.

LATE ADDITIONS: NEW AND OLD

A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucy Pratt, Simon Garfield (ed.), Canongate

This is a real treasure trove and reflections on a life from a diary kept by Pratt from 1925 to 1986: covers relationships, love, friends, politics and lots more.

Glasgow: Mapping the City, John Moore, Birlinn

This is an object of beauty, social history and geography about Glasgow, documenting how it has changed through the ages in maps.

Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels, Alissa Quart, New Press

Read this towards the end of the indyref and it really seemed to catch (writing from and about the US) what was happening. Worth reflecting on more than a year later: ‘we are more than our money … we cannot be entirely rendered into a sellable cliché.’

On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin, Harper Collins

Thirty-five years of reporting from frontlines, battle zones and war conflicts – with empathy and compassion. Colvin was tragically killed by an IED in Syria in 2012. This book is a fitting, noble testament.