Books of 2014

From Cooking to American Crime novels, via Cycling, the Revolution and the retelling of ancient Italian stories for children, Mark Perryman recommends his Books of 2014 as contenders for late Christmas presents.

101 Damnations - Books of 2014

NOT A LOT OF PEACE. TOO MUCH ILL WILL. A GOOD SEASONAL READ NEEDED.

Bah! Humbug? Well, not exactly but in a world of not much peace and plenty of ill-will what do you buy for those in your life clinging on to the ideal that the point is to change it? Here’s my top ten, not guaranteed to cheer them up mind.

Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1% reveals in graphic prose the modern day wealth of the super-rich, the ‘1%’ who shape levels of inequality today straight out of a Dickensian novel of Christmas past.

The Best of Benn is the perfect book to end the year in which we lost one of the towering political figures of the last three decades, Tony Benn. Along with his foe, Thatcher, Benn acquired an ‘ism’ and this posthumous collection brilliantly shows just why he was of such enduring significance, held in great affection by many while being hated and pilloried by the establishment including the leadership of his own party, Labour.

The most inspirational popular movement of 2014? In my book (sic) Scotland’s Yes Campaign, and more particularly the Radical Independence Campaign. The politics of hope and vision versus Project Fear and Unionist Labour defending the status quo. Alasdair Gray’s poetic Independence is a splendid short book to set out the case for an argument that doesn’t show one bit of going away. The SNP’s membership quadrupled since the Referendum, The Radical Independence Campaign born again with 3,000 in attendance at their recent conference, and this is what being on the losing side is supposed to look like?

The worst-written reviews I’ve read all year have been those the ‘quality press’ commissioned of Russell Brand’s mostly excellent Revolution. Almost without exception the reviewers were long-standing and middle-aged members of the commentariat, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Craig Brown and the rest. All proved themselves entirely incapable of recognising that the world of politics they feast on, the Westminster bubble, has become entirely disconnected from ,and unrepresentative of, the generation Russell addresses and engages with. No he doesn’t get everything right but he writes and acts in a way these commentators and their cosy world of self-satisfaction could do with learning a lesson or two from. Except, as their reviews proved, they can’t see through their own fog of smug.

Russell is a kind of punk politician, for those of us of a certain age the antecedents are there to be seen and celebrated. Randal Doane’s Stealing All Transmissions in that regard couldn’t be more timely. Instead of yet another biography of The Clash, Randal gets to grips with their cultural and political legacy via a decent dose of Gramsci. This is a cultural politics of dissent for the 21st century, mixing interpretation and insurrection . More of that please in 2015.

Regular readers of my reviews round-ups won’t be surprised that I’ve included a sports, cookery and children’s’ title in my seasonal top ten. Because all three are vital to any remaking of the narrow, inward-looking space the ‘political’ too often threatens to become. How To Think About Exercise by Damon Young sets out a philosophy of sport which is centred on active participation and physical pleasure rather than the passive-consumerism of fandom. Crucially Damon links the rewards provided to the mental not just the physical, a fresh and vibrant way of rethinking the meaning of sport. Food as an activity, eating and cooking, if the Christmastime best-seller lists are anything to go by, provides more pleasure today than just about any other aspect of popular culture.

David Frenkiel and Luise Vindahl’s Green Kitchen Travels is a book rich in deliciousness before you even get round to trying out the recipes. It is wrapped in an internationalism and environmentalism that hardly needs to speak its name because both are such a natural part of David and Luise’s project. Pushkin Press publish wonderful children’s books, great pan-European writing and beautifully packaged. Their ‘Save the Story’ series gets contemporary writers to reinterpret classic tales. My favourite from their latest batch of titles in this series is Umberto Eco’s version of The Betrothed, an ancient Italian story for children retold by one of the most imaginative of Italy’s modern writers.

For a decent novel for the grown-ups I recommend James Ellroy’s latest. His chronicles of JFK-era America are an absolute pleasure to read. Hugely informative yet compulsively thrilling. This is a politicised fiction at its best and of a sort, with the exception of the equally splendid Christopher Brookmyre, GB is largely yet to produce. Perfida is Ellroy’s 2014 blockbuster, taking in 1941, the USA on the brink of entering World War Two, race hate aimed at Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbour and as always with Ellroy, deep-seated political intrigue and insight.

And my personal choice of a number one Christmas read? Ned Boulting is a rare kind of sports commentator, his reports from Le Tour are funny and self-knowing yet provide context too, historical and cultural, to the greatest race on Earth. And what makes Ned even more unusual is he writes every bit as well as he presents in front of a camera. His book on the 2014 Tour de France 101 Damnations of course begins in Yorkshire and those two unforgettable days when a world class sporting event travelled from Leeds via Harrogate and York to Sheffield via every village and town along the way. Local yet global, free to watch, no expensive infrastructure built unlikely to be ever used afterwards, a street festival with bikes, hundreds of thousands cycling to their vantage point. Ned catches all of this superbly and thats just the first couple of days. A joy to read both for the memories and a vision of what sport could be minus the commercial overdrive and corrupt governance. Happy reading!

Mark Perryman

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