A (relatively random) rundown of my favourite books from 2015. (To buy book, click on a cover.)
1 Primo Levi Complete Works
I know, I know, this is neither a single book nor a new work. But, both as a witness and as an imaginative writer, Primo Levi was one of the most acute observers of the human condition. This beautifully produced edition of his complete works includes many essays not previously translated into English. It is a wonderful monument to what Toni Morrison has aptly described as Levi’s ‘defiant humanism’.
2 Mick Hume Trigger Warnings
A trenchant, no-holds-barred defence of free speech. Invaluable in an age of ‘I’m for free speech, but…’
3 Jason Burke The New Threat from Islamic Militancy
Jason Burke is one of the most astute observers of both Islamic militancy and the war on terror. In his latest book, like in his previous works, Burke eschews simple, single explanations of Islamic radicalism and tells instead a complex story with many threads, but one that often has the feel of a fast-paced thriller.
4 Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women
It is more than ten years since Lucia Berlin died. She was little known during her life, even though her collection Homesick won the American Book Award in 1991. Always at the edge of literary life, she published her stories in small magazines and fringe presses. But this posthumous collection shows her to be one of America’s finest story tellers. Dark, uncompromising, often brutally comic, yet always deeply humane, these are stories of working class lives and everyday life, of the chaotic collision of the public and the intimate. The pity is that there won’t be more of them.
5 Luc Sante The Other Paris
Luc Sante is a great chronicler of the underbelly of cities and the underclass of society. Low Life, his account of New York street life, is an essential work in understanding the city. Similarly his latest book is a history of a Paris rarely told – the city not of love and beauty but of sweat and dirt, of the discarded and the hidden, of workers and barflies and rabble-rousers and thieves.
6 Bengt Jangfeldt Mayakovsky
(University of Chicago Press)
One of the most important early modernist poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky found his voice with the Russian Revolution, sold his soul to Stalin’s regime, and eventually committed suicide at the age of 36, at least partly from disillusionment with that regime. Bengt Jangfeldt’s book, first published six years ago in Swedish, and extraordinarily the first proper non-Soviet biography of Mayakovsky, is an engrossing account of a brilliant poet and a contradictory human being, set against the crushing of the yearning for freedom in the early Soviet Union. A new translation of Mayakovsky’s work is published next year. Jangfeldt’s biography provides an illuminating context.
7 Kamel Daoud The Meursault Investigation
In The Outsider, Albert Camus’ existential study of alienation and mailase, the anti-hero Patrice Meursault shoots dead a nameless Arab on a beach in Algiers. Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, is narrated by Harun, the brother of the murdered Arab. The novel has been seen by many reviewers as a riposte to Camus, a means of giving voice to the nameless Arab. But it is far more than that. It is a Camusian reflection on the state of Algeria, a nation that, in Daoud’s eyes, has fallen into the condition of the absurd, caught ‘between Allah and ennui’. French rule may have warped the soul, Daoud suggests, but so too have the tyrannies of the post-independence years. ‘As the years have passed’, Harun observes, ‘the beast has become less picky’.
8 Mark Rosenthal, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit
(Yale University Press)
Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals are one of the great works of twentieth century art. An artistic paean to the auto industry and to its workers, the irony, as the Wall Street Journal‘s art critic was later to observe, was that a work by a Mexican communist ‘remains one of America’s most significant monuments to itself’. This is the catalogue of an exhibition earlier this year that told the story not just of Rivera’s time in Detroit but also that of his wife, the artist Frida Kahlo. The essays here explore the evolution of Rivera’s and Kahlo’s work, the changing face of Detroit and the making of the Rivera’s extraordinary murals.
9 Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
As a writer, Jon Ronson is both wonderfully quirky and deeply humane. He takes subjects that most journalists ignore as being at the fringes of public debate and uses them to tell us something important about the times in which we live. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Ronson looks at social media rage, interviewing those who have victims of twitter mobs, to show how faux notions of nonconformism are creating a more conformist, conservative age.
10 Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound
Harking back in some ways to the early days of magical realism, Kurniawan’s novel is a picaresque epic. It is hugely ambitious, part family saga, part national history, part fantasy, retelling the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days to post-independence trauma. You’ll love it or hate it.