Books of the year — Engelsberg Ideas

Contributors and members of the editorial team select their personal picks of 2021.
books van gogh
Piles of French novels by Vincent van Gogh. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
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James Barr, author of Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East

My book of the year is Short History of Islamic Thought (Apollo) by Fitzroy Morrissey which describes the twists and turns of Muslim thinking brilliantly. This is a book I know I will frequently refer to. The subject is both relevant and daunting. In Morrissey’s hands it is fascinating and a pleasure to read. I also enjoyed Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs (Basic). This is both provocative and lurid: Baer balances the stories of stranglings and beheadings with an argument that the Ottomans were no worse, and arguably more tolerant, than their western European contemporaries, until a tunnel-visioned focus on Islamic orthodoxy got the better of them.

Alastair Benn, Deputy Editor, Engelsberg Ideas

An honourable mention goes to Lea Ypi for her memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Penguin) – full of beautifully constructed insight into Albania’s transition from the Communist system and the events that followed – but my stand-out book of 2021 is New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s mighty work, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Picador). It seems to me the truest picture of how the opioid crisis came to be. The first generation of Sacklers redefined the role of marketing in medicine and became rich as a result; the second generation tried to go still further, became stupendously rich and precipitated a national catastrophe that is yet to run its course.

Gill Bennett, author of The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies

Nigel Inkster’s The Great Decoupling: China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy (Hurst & Company) is a short yet comprehensive and compelling account of a most topical subject, by a former Assistant Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service who is now Senior Adviser for Cyber Security and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In addition to these impeccable credentials, Inkster has a deep knowledge of Chinese culture, history and language that makes the book both authoritative and thought-provoking. In addition to geopolitics and cyber issues, he explores the role of Chinese intelligence, about which we know so much less than we do about Russian.

Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ: Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency (Bloomsbury) by John Ferris is a massive achievement, in every sense—more than 800 pages of detail, from the earliest origins in the nineteenth century of what in 1919 was to become the Government Code and Cypher School, GCHQ’s predecessor, through both world wars and the Cold War years, right up to the present day. This fascinating account reflects the complexity of an agency whose role is fundamental to UK security. As Ferris makes clear, Whitehall has consistently funded Sigint better than any other aspect of defence except for the nuclear deterrent.

Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies, King’s College London

Russia and China are geopolitically two of the great players of the contemporary world. And yet their history in modern times is a fractious and uneasy one. In On The Edge: Life Along the Russia-China Border (Harvard University Press) by Anthropologists Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey use their rich experience of both the USSR, today’s Russia, China and Mongolia to write about the great border that constitutes the longest between two countries in the world. From fascinating physical descriptions of what the border actually looks like (mostly river, or barbed wire, with few proper crossing points), along with historical insights, and analysis of the complex, very different, sometimes almost diametrically opposed worlds immediately either side of the border. Elegantly written, it offers fresh insights into a much commented on and studied relationship.

Armand D’Angour, author of How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking

David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count (HarperCollins) is an incisive and well written essay that highlights how (and asks why) some of the most fervent advocates of anti-racism – mainly in recent years (but not exclusively) from the left of the UK political spectrum – are often content to allow, or even to encourage, antisemitic sentiments to persist when similar expressions of (e.g.) anti-black or anti-Islamic prejudice would not be tolerated. Much of this hidden racism is based on an avowed antipathy to the State of Israel, which allows antisemitism to masquerade as anti-Zionism. But this leaves British Jews (who may, like Baddiel himself, be critical of Israeli government policies) sadly aware that the refusal to recognise that they are still often victims of racism has become yet another insidious form of antisemitism.

Michael Wood’s The Story of China (Simon & Schuster) is a sweeping and ambitious retelling of Chinese history from a very personal viewpoint. Wood has travelled extensively across China and his excellent historical recounting is enlivened by personal experience and observation (as with Wood’s TV documentary series, which led to the book). A love of and engagement with Chinese history and literature (poets such as the eighth century Du Fu are regularly quoted) shines through his lightly-worn scholarship, which includes discussion of recent discoveries from archaeology. Wood takes us through from the earliest periods to modern times, even presenting little known evidence about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. One is left with new insights into the prospects and pitfalls of China’s increasing global dominance in the twenty-first century.

Marie Daouda, academic and critic

Benjamin Lipscomb paints in vivid colours the encounter and long-lasting friendship between Elisabeth Anscombe, Philipa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch in The Women Are Up to Something (Oxford University Press). In 1939, while most of the male students were mobilised, a revolution in ethics began in Somerville College, Oxford. Each of the four women answered in her own way to the call for truth and the ethical challenges posed by the Second World War, and fought back against the idea that morality and metaphysics have no reality. Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls (Little, Brown) offers a detailed account of the history of gender. The conflict raised between different schools of feminism and self-identification is addressed through a rigorous philosophical analysis.

Daisy Dunn, author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny

This book has only recently been published, and I’m just starting it, so it may be cheating to add it to this list. But having enjoyed Jenny Uglow’s previous biographies, I have a feeling that Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time (Faber & Faber) is going to be a favourite. I hadn’t heard of the artists Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power, but their colourful prints from the interwar years caught my eye. As a keen but amateur lino-cutter myself I can’t wait to dive in to the stories behind their works. The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton, a 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women (Orion Publishing) by Antonia Fraser follows the trial brought against Lord Melbourne PM on account of his alleged affair with the dazzling political campaigner Caroline, a married woman well ahead of her time. This book enthralled me from start to finish.

Malcolm Forbes, writer and critic

One of the standout fiction titles of 2021 was a rediscovered masterpiece. The Passenger (Pushkin) by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz follows the desperate plight of Jewish businessman Otto Silbermann as he boards train after train to escape further persecution in the wake of Kristallnacht. His relentless struggles and his dogged determination to cross the German border make for a gripping read. Judy Battalion’s The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance (Little, Brown) leaves its mark. This untold story of the Second World War focuses on a group of brave Polish women (or ‘ghetto girls’) who did not flee the Nazis but instead stood up to them. A powerful and compelling tale but also an important one.

Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London

Rose Gottemoeller’s Negotiating the New START Treaty (Amherst: Cambria Press) provides a candid and engaging account of her time leading the US team that negotiated the 2011 New START agreement with the Russians, which at least kept nuclear arms control alive. Martin Indyk’s Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (Random House) intersperses recollections of his own efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East in his painstaking but fascinating reconstruction of Henry Kissinger’s efforts to bring order (if not peace) to the region in the years before and after the October 1973 War. Lastly Philip Zelikow’s The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916–1917 (PublicAffairs) brings a practitioner’s eye to the sad story of Woodrow Wilson’s failure to mediate a peace deal in 1916-17 before the United States joined the Great War.

Johan Hakelius, political editor-in-chief, Fokus

We’ll always have Paris, but we might lose our heads. Colin Jones, as well informed about eighteenth century France as any professor of history could be, leads us through Paris on the exceptional day of 9 Thermidor, Year II. Hour by hour, minute by minute we follow The Fall of Robespierre (Oxford University Press). The grandeur and folly of men looks pretty much the same a couple of hundred years later.

Edward St Aubyn’s tenth novel Double Blind (Harvill) is crammed with neuroscience and rewilding, magic mushrooms and financial instruments. The critics found it sprawling, but so is reality. St Aubyn has an eye and an ear for these ridiculous times we’ve found ourselves in.

Warren Ellis, seldom far from Nick Cave’s side, captures something true and moving in his short book centred around a modern-day relic: Nina Simone’s gum (Faber & Faber).

James Hardie, critic

Albert and the Whale (Fourth Estate) by Philip Hoare examines the enduring work of Albrecht Dürer and the artist’s relationship with nature. Combining art history with biography, nature writing with memoir, Hoare takes us on a meandering journey both above and below the surface, encountering Thomas Mann, David Bowie, William Shakespeare, and the many beasts that roamed Dürer’s astonishing mind.

Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of the (Allen Lane) is a different sort of adventure altogether. Not just one for bibliophiles, this scholarly yet highly entertaining book chronicles the very first attempts at an index by thirteenth century monks all the way through to that most ubiquitous index, Google.

Tobias Jones, author of Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football

Giles Tremlett’s The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury) was a magisterial account of the determined, but often divisive and naïve attempts to protect democracy in Spain in the late 1930s. I found Elise Valmorbida’s The Happy Writing Book (Lawrence King) inspiring because it was so unusually nurturing. Its gentle, miniature 100 chapters just made me want to reach for pen-and-paper. Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s Silence and Silences (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a moving, meditative book about absences, deafness, grief and much else. Lastly, I’m a sucker for all ultra-related street art, so loved Mitja Velinkonja The Chosen Few (Doppelhouse Press), a slim but lushly-illustrated work about the ideologies, and extremisms, behind football fans’ spray-painted murals.

Tim Marshall, author of The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of Our World

My literary highlight of 2021 was China: An Epic Novel (Hodder & Stoughton) by Edward Rutherford. Set at the dawn of the First Opium War it follows an array of at-first-unrelated Chinese, British, and American characters. As we march on through the following decades the protagonists stories begin to cross and deepen. I learned more about the Opium Wars, and China in general, from this novel than from some of the factual books I’ve read on the subject. Daniel Yergin’s The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations (Penguin) on how changing energy needs and energy security are influencing geopolitics was the stand out non-fiction book in a strong year.

Jenny McCartney, author of The Ghost Factory

One of the most compelling books I read this year was Consumed: A Sister’s Story (Sceptre) by Arifa Akbar. It’s a memoir of her troubled, sometimes joyful older sister Fauzia, who died of undetected tuberculosis in a London hospital. Along the way it takes in themes of immigration, dislocation, and the scars and secrets within families. Beautifully written and immensely moving.

I also greatly enjoyed London, Burning (Little, Brown) by Anthony Quinn, a literary page-turner set at the tail end of the Seventies in a London beset by Irish republican violence, strikes and racial tension. The novel vividly captures an uneasy era on the cusp of change, as the plot gathers pace to the soundtrack of The Clash, Kate Bush and the Callaghan government crumbling.

David Omand, author of How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence

Carlo Rovelli’s Heligoland (Allen Lane) is a thrilling explanation of the birth of quantum physics. This is the physics that has given us our digital technology and nuclear energy and weapons, and much else but that has remained deeply paradoxical. Carlos Rovelli’s explanation of its mysteries, such as Schrodinger’s cat paradox, led me to follow him in making the mental leap of no longer thinking of the foundation of reality as ‘things’ like photons of light but rather as the nodes where entities interact, just as we have long known that the colour of an object is not intrinsic but depends upon how our eyes respond to the frequency of the light being reflected from it. We better understand particles as interactions between fields, life as a relation between animals, or cells, or molecules and ourrselves as nodes in social interactions. He might have added, and we will better understand that crises like Covid-19 lie in the interactions of an event with the surrounding economic, social and technical systems. Context in other words is everything.

Agnès Poirier, author of Notre-Dame: The Soul of France

It started as an experiment in text or an exercise ‘in vigilance’, as its author, American born Lauren Elkin states at the beginning of her N°91/92, A Diary of a Year on the Bus (Semiotexte(e)). From September 2014 to May 2015, Elkin typed her thoughts on her iPhone as she commuted from East to West and back in Paris. Although she types her sometimes elliptical notes ‘as fast as I can’, a whole world oozes from them. We see the Haussmannian buildings as a ‘Parisian way of measuring speed’, all lining the long boulevards that ‘curve north or south but never turn.’ We see a Parisian woman with a ‘blue tutu Chanel bag and fake lashes’ and kids jiggling on their seats or playing with water pistols. And of course, we listen to the author’s inner voice, angry at a group of loud Americans for invading her early commute, wondering what she will say to an interview at the Préfecture de Police after her application for French citizenship. ‘Why do I want to be French?’, she wonders. Perhaps, ‘to have some say in things however small.’ And then comes that Thursday afternoon when she teaches Georges Pérec to her students: ‘They haven’t encountered writing like this, writing of the everyday (…) that suggests, that counts, that tracks.’ Her notes on the bus resume at the start of her second semester, a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attack. ‘We are all thinking the same thing’ starts the note on that day. Indeed, we did. Then, personal grief follows national sorrow. Spring comes and with the end of term, a new life on the metro begins. Alas, no more buses for Lauren Elkin who, with this diary, has given us some of the most poetic and vibrant vignettes of Parisian life.

Suzanne Raine, Affiliate Lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University

Christopher Marlowe is rumoured to have worked as an ‘intelligencer’ for Sir Francis Walsingham. In A Fine Madness (Simon & Schuster), Alan Judd imagines what made him do it, and what it cost him. How does a ‘free-thinker’ end up serving the state? Judd’s Marlowe is impulsive and recklessly honest, testing what he would do for his beliefs, if he even has any.  But it is not just about Marlowe; the imprisoned narrator, Walsingham’s codebreaker Thomas Phelippes, is hiding in plain sight. The cryptographer essential to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots quietly reminds us of forgotten names without whom the great men of history would not be called great.

Andrew Roberts, author of George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch

Natalie Livingstone’s The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty (John Murray Press) uncovers in witty and vivid prose what the female side of the Rothchild family were doing while their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were making fortunes and changing the world. The Rothschild women were a truly extraordinary and talented group too, and at last they have a superb biographer worthy of them. The famous travel writer John Gimlette’s The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, An Island Story (Head of Zeus) takes us to the beautiful but extremely weird tropical island where everything – especially its history and fauna – is larger than life.

Fay Schopen, journalist and editor

To call Real Estate (Penguin), the final book in Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, a riff on Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own is, whilst not entirely inaccurate, an inadequate description of an utterly original writer. Levy’s dazzling memoir, like her two preceding volumes, is an exploration of womanhood, writing, and belonging. Beginning in London in 2018 with the acquisition of a banana plant, Levy ponders ideas of home; the ‘unreal estates’ she owns in her imagination. As she travels the globe – New York, Mumbai, Paris and Berlin – her meditations on freedom and domesticity land with devastating accuracy.

There’s a simmering rage at the heart of Motherhood: A Manifesto (4th Estate), Eliane Glaser’s indispensable, even-handed exploration of modern motherhood. Or rather, the rage erupts in the reader when taking in Glaser’s rigorous yet impassioned prose. The book poses a series of questions for which society seemingly has no answers. Why are the conditions of contemporary motherhood so retrograde? Why does mothering mean pay cuts, lost job opportunities, a heavier domestic load, and judgement from all sections of society? As Glaser says, ‘it’s time to push back.’

Eve Webster, Editorial Assistant, Engelsberg Ideas

In yet another year defined by illness, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice (Allen Lane) by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel is a jarring yet urgent examination of the way in which we understand health, disease, and medicine in the Western world. Presenting their extensive yet readable research, the authors demonstrate the ways in which oppression and discrimination past and present reverberate through the history of medicine.

Leone Ross’ third novel This One Sky Day (Faber) is a sparkling work, thick with the imagery of Popisho, a fictional and fantastical Caribbean-coded archipelago. Covering issues ranging from addiction to miscarriage, the degree of distance generated by Ross’ symbolism offers an empathetic and richer understanding of the uglier elements of human nature. As with most works in the magical-realistic mode, the work is best enjoyed when approached with the most open of minds and an ability to appreciate the familiar in the distant and strange.

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