End of Year Book Reviews 2013

Morrissey Book Review

Mark Perryman recommends some late Christmas book buying with politics and culture to the fore with his end of year Book Reviews 2013.

Cheer up, it could be worse? Well, under this hapless government probably not but a bit of seasonal present-giving might at least keep the temptations of miserabilism at bay. 2014 will mark the start of the 1914 centenary hoopla, you know the thing ‘The War to End All Wars’ and all that guff. A superb read therefore over the 12 days would be the poetry collection compiled by Carol Ann Duffy 1914 Poetry Remembers, moving and thought-provoking from the War Poets and today’s verse-writers too. An equally moving recollection is provided by Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica. The extraordinary story of war reporter George Steer, and in particular how he smuggled out from Spain in full gruesome detail the horrific impact of the carpet bombing of Guernica. Steer was part of that 1930s generation who across the political spectrum were decisively shaped by the cause of anti-fascism. Idealism and commitment from another era, and continent in Beverley Naidoo’s beautifully written Death of An Idealist. Told in graphic and merciless detail, the tale of the murder by the Apartheid authorities of a young, white, doctor who had dedicated himself to providing medical help in South Africa’s Black townships.

Looking for a present to provide New Year inspiration? Jeremy Gilbert’s superb Common Ground : Democracy and Collectivity in a Age of Individualism provides that in ample measure with a timely analysis of how to turn me-me-me of rampant Christmas consumerism into something better. A wonderfully philosophical perspective on what it means to resist is provided by Howard Caygill’s On Resistance. Another inspirational read to prepare for the year ahead. Or if you can’t keep yourself away from the smartphone over the season, justify all that button-pushing with a read of the incisive analysis of all things social media provided by Paolo Gerbaudo’s Tweets and the Streets Or take a break from all the present-giving and spoil yourself with a free read. The latest instalment of the increasingly impressive After Neoliberalism Manifesto is provided by Beatrix Campbell. Free to download, the chapter is entitled After Neoliberalism : The Need for a Gender Revolution. Just the thing to spice up the conversation round the Christmas dinner table after arguing who is doing the washing-up! A writer and thinker often unfairly slated by an anti-intellectual tendency on the Left as a difficult read is Slavoj Zizek. His recent comment on the death of Mandela was accessible and incisive in equal measure. Similarly easy to read yet also refreshingly iconoclastic was last year’s collection on 2011’s twelve months pf protest The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. Zizek is as much a cultural phenomenon as simply a political philosopher. His new book Demanding The Impossible is an excellent introduction to both the breadth and depth of Zizek’s ideas, made all the better to follow his arguments via an imaginative format of short thematic interviews.

A treat for those of a slightly more traditional politics you can’t go wrong with would be the final diary collection of the peerless Tony Benn, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. When he finally gave up his seat in Parliament Benn famously declared he was off to do more politics, this might be the last volume but remains a testament to both unqualified idealism and enduring activism. There remans no parliamentary politician to match him. The annual collection Socialist Register in the 1980s would have been loosely described as ‘Bennite’, part of an intellectual ferment on Labour’s Left that hardly exists today, battered by the bruising experience of the Blairist-Brownite years. The collection remans essential if perhaps lacking the obvious audience of that past era, a great range and always bang up-to-date, the latest edition Registering Class is the Register’s 50th.

2014 may be dominated south of the border by the prospect of UKiP topping the Euro Election poll. Almost all their vote, and MEPs, will come from English constituencies. North of the border the prospects for Scottish politics are entirely different. In many ways it isn’t the result of the Independence Referendum that will matter, though a win for the Independence cause would be a political earthquake few of us will have experienced in our lifetimes. More crucial is the fact the independence case has already been won, that’s why the referendum is taking place. It is almost inconceivable that the Independence campaign won’t secure at least 40% of the popular vote. Get that and the process towards break-up becomes irreversible, recognised constitutionally or not. Lesley Riddoch’s Blossom is a very well-written exploration of Scotland’s past, present and future identity and how the cause of independence is intimately connected to a Scottish political culture which is fundamentally framed by social-democratic values. While England remains in thrall to the neo-liberal.

A season of not much peace for some parts of the world and precious little goodwill towards plenty of communities marginalised and discriminated against. Internationalism is our antidote to the unreality of Christmas. Give yourself a lovely little read, How to Be Danish by Patrick Kingsley, all about the land of Borgen and The Killing. Or if you prefer, a best-seller in Germany, now translated into English for the first time, Stefan Zweig’s Shooting Stars. A collection of portraits of turning points in history, the perfect stocking-filler for the Europhile in your life. Or for those whose eyes wander westwards instead, the guilty pleasures of Americana, Patrick Cockburn’s A Colossal Wreck. This is road movie writing, uncovering all that is wrong with Modern America while never denying its lasting fascination. The late Alexander Cockburn’s last book, he remains the finest writer about all that is good, and bad, about the USA.

Christmas will be the time of office parties, knees-ups down the pub, New Years Eve clubbing and more. Providing an unrivalled insight into the soundtrack of our lives is Bob Stanley’s magisterial story of modern pop Yeah Yeah Yeah. However for the children of the 1980s there will be only one book to explain away their obsession with indie-pop, jangly guitars and a curious love affair with all things kitchen sink and dramatic. Anything but ghosted, the sublime Autobiography by Morrissey.

Any holiday break has to be for the empirically-driven politico the excuse they need to break away from the facts and the figures and immerse themselves in the guilty pleasure of fiction and the make-believe. Fortunately 2013 boasts two of the best political novels of recent years. DJ Taylor’s The Windsor Faction is a splendidly disrespectful counterfactual history that questions the perceived patriotism of King Edward VIII and his notoriously pro-Hitler views. If he hadn’t abdicated what if… This perhaps is fairly familiar ground, though Taylor creates a read that none have come close to matching for its originality and intrigue to date. David Leavitt’s The Two Hotel Francourts is set in a similar period, the wartime 1940s, but in the less familiar surround of supposedly neutral 1940 Lisbon. The personal politics of exile, refuge, sanctuary, escape and betrayal are weaved together for one of the best reads of the year, absolutely brilliant.

Christmas is of course characterised most of all by childhood, a demographic, as the marketing bods would have it, ripe for commodification. Against the stream of monetised adolescence the inestimably good Pushkin Press have recently published the first four titles of a Childrens writing series ‘ Save the Story ’. An international selection of well-established writers, each matched with a timelessly popular children’s tale to reinterpret and rewrite, loyal to the original but given a new twist in the process. Oh, and lavishly illustrated too. Perfect for readers. old, young or in-between. For this Christmas the selection includes Jonathan Coe’s Story of Gulliver, Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone and from Dave Eggers The Story of Captain Nemo..

Apart from Children Christmas is of course framed by the over-consumption of food. An absolute must-have to add to any leftie-foodie’s Christmas list just has to be one of the quirkiest titles of the year. Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Collectivise the kitchen , more Marx with sparks than Marks and Sparks TV dinners. This book was my most delightful discovery of the year.

But my choice for the perfect Christmas read? One of the nicest experiences of Philosophy Football’s something-resembling-a-Grand Plan is that we produce tees to promote causes, histories, moments that might otherwise not get a mention. There’s a touch of the ‘suck it and see’, who knows if anyone else will be bothered? Though we get it more right than not, otherwise we wouldn’t still be business, we hardly imagined that our 1943 Italian Resistance T-shirt would prove to be one our best-sellers in 2013. What a pleasure therefore to read the newly translated A Civil War : A History of the Italian Resistance by Claudio Pavone. This truly deserves to be described as a ‘masterwork’, the definitive history of one the most committed partisan movements of World War Two, absolutist anti-fascism from the barrel of a gun. And a movement decisively shaped by the divisions and arguments that would produce the most successful Communist Party of post-war Western Europe, the Italian n Communist Party. Thrilling to read, with a compelling narrative, if its not already on your Christmas list there’s still time to drop a heavy hint.

A happy Christmas reading, and for those the past year hasn’t provided enough of an upturn to lift much seasonal cheer, there’s always next year.

Mark Perryman

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