Books of the Year
- December 22, 2022
- Engelsberg Ideas
Contributors to Engelsberg Ideas highlight the books they’ve enjoyed in 2022.
Lincoln Allison, author of My Father’s Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas
James Holland has established himself in recent years as the foremost historian of the Second World War and Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day (Penguin) is his most intimate and vivid book. It tells the story of the Sherwood Rangers from D-Day to VE-Day, from the difficult landing in Normandy to a scribbled note received in Bremen saying that the war was over. They transformed themselves from a part-time cavalry regiment in 1939 to the most decorated tank regiment in the army only to be disbanded in 1946. We owe Holland a debt for putting their story on record.
James Barr, author of Lords of the Desert
I enjoyed Nicholas Morton’s The Mongol Storm (Basic Books) which argues that the Mongols’ disruptive impact was felt long before they hove into view. Former CIA officer David McCloskey published a brilliant thriller Damascus Station (W.M. Norton) late last year. Not only was it gripping from start to finish, I thought it cleverly explored the complexity of the ongoing Syrian war.
Adam Boulton, presenter of Worldview by Engelsberg Ideas
Prime Minister Truss: we hardly got to know you, which makes Out of the Blue: The inside story of the unexpected rise and rapid fall of Liz Truss (HarperCollins) by Harry Cole and James Heale an instant book to relish. For those who like their political history slow it must be Crassus: The First Tycoon (Yale University Press), Peter Stothard’s account of the richest man in the last days of the Roman Republic. Gill Hornby’s Godmersham Park (Penguin) continues her extrapolation on Jane Austen’s work. Comfortingly Robert Harris’ gripping Act of Oblivion (Penguin) meditates on a time when things in England were even worse than they are now.
Armand D’Angour, author of How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking
In Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (John Murray) Andrea Wulf paints a vivid picture of how a circle of intellectuals in late eighteenth-century Europe changed the way we think about ourselves. She describes how thinkers like Goethe, Schelling, von Humboldt and Schiller, based largely in the German town of Jena, transformed the world with their poetry, philosophy and science. These ‘Romantics’ laid the foundations for a new understanding of what it means to be an individual in society. Exploring the tensions between individual rights and communal duties, between self-fulfilment and altruism, they forged a frame of thinking that is now taken for granted but was revolutionary in its time.
Marie Daouda, Lecturer in French at Oriel College, Oxford
Roy Sebag’s The Natural Order of Money (Goldmoney Publishing) is not a book on abstract economics. It aims to reconsider our economy from the ground up – literally from the soil cultivated by the farmer to the computer used by the software engineer. In this compelling and simple study, Sebag argues that the only way to maintain a sustainable and wholesome economy is to use a tangible currency that is rooted in the natural world and reflects the amount of effort involved in producing it. After the collapse of cryptocurrencies and in our disheartening climate of inflation The Natural Order of Money gives an humble yet hopeful way forward for each individual and for the economy worldwide, by returning to the use of metal – gold and silver – as a main currency.
Compare Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe, the male and female icons of the sexual revolution. One killed herself after multiple abortions, coercive sex, and sexual harassment ruined her physical and mental health. The other lived a long life and died a millionaire. In The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (Polity Press) Louise Perry argues that the cost of the sexual revolution was paid more visibly by women, but that the porn industry, hookup culture and social media have ruined sex for both sexes.
Francis J. Gavin, director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins SAIS
Will Inboden’s The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink (Penguin) is a deeply researched, beautifully written book about the foreign policy of one of the most consequential presidencies of the postwar era. Inboden demonstrates that Reagan had a grand strategy, based on simple but powerful principles. He also reveals important issues previously underappreciated – for example, President Reagan’s focus on re-invigorating the United States relationship with Japan and his affection and respect for Prime Minister Nakasone, which paid important geopolitical dividends. The Peacemaker does not withhold criticism – Inboden highlights Reagan’s poor management style and inability/unwillingness to reign in warring advisors, faults that can be tied directly to the disastrous Iran-Contra scandal. Inboden has produced an important work of scholarship which is a terrific read and will become the standard work on a most consequential president.
Tobias Jones, author of The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River
Thea Lenarduzzi’s Dandelions (Fitzcarraldo) was a moving memoir about growing up on the cusp of Anglo-Italian cultures. Full of reminisces and reflections, it’s a work of great warmth and depth. Caroline Moorehead’s Edda Mussolini (Penguin), about the Duce’s feisty first-born, was an alternative telling of a familiar story: recounting the rise and fall of Fascism through the lens of family and marital tensions. The Connected Community (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) by Cormac Russell and John McKnight, was an inspiring read – a source of great wisdom about how to build bonds from the ground up in order to forge healthier, more resilient neighbourhoods.
Alexander Lee, author of Machiavelli: His Life and Times
I really enjoyed Daniel Wallace Maze’s Young Bellini (Yale University Press). Drawing on some brilliant archival discoveries, this delightful book redraws the history of Giovanni Bellini’s early life – and revolutionizes our understanding of the Venetian Renaissance’s most dazzling artistic family.
Roderic Lyne, former British diplomat
With war raging in Ukraine, I have spent the year embedded in a series of fine new books on the history of Russia and its neighbours – none better than Rodric Braithwaite’s Russia: Myths and Realities (Profile Books). Braithwaite picks out key moments with many a digression from the past into the present in a lively essay sweeping through a thousand years in under 300 pages. For light relief I turned to Iron Curtain: A Love Story (Penguin), yet another brilliantly original novel by the London-based Serbian author Vesna Goldsworthy. Iron Curtain follows the fortunes of a Red Princess from an unnamed Communist state in Eastern Europe who tries to adapt to life with a feckless English poet in 1980s London. It has clear echoes of Goldsworthy’s moving autobiography, Chernobyl Strawberries (2005), which made her name in the English-speaking world and far beyond.
Chris Miller, author of Chip War
At a time when Russia and China are trying to redraw the world’s geopolitical map, understanding their domestic politics is as important as ever. Unfortunately, both countries’ systems are as opaque as any time in recent decades. Joseph Torigian’s fascinating new book Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion (Yale University Press) provides a detailed study of these countries’ politics at points of crisis. His finding – that rational decision making takes a back seat to bitter personal power struggles – is not a reassuring read. However, its analysis is critical to understanding authoritarian politics today.
Andrew Monaghan, author of The New Politics of Russia
For many, Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine reflects the beginning of a new era. But the war itself reflects many of the horrors of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Antony Beevor’s new book Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921 (Orion) offers vivid and detailed insight into events that remain too little known. Tracing the origins and evolution of this ‘world war condensed’, he resists the temptation to draw explicit parallels with current events. But the many echoes are clear in his lucid reflections on Russian military culture and the multifaceted complexity (and brutality) of wars.
Francesca Peacock, writer
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These (Faber & Faber) is an intricate masterpiece of a short novel: every word, every action, and every object is necessary, and builds towards a story that will leave you with as much despair as it will hope. In a different vein, I also loved Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night: On Writing (Daunt Books Publishing). Cain muses on what makes fiction work, and the importance of letting words and writing touch a life.
Estelle Paranque, author of Blood, Fire & Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici
Kate Mosse’s Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries (Pan Macmillan) is a true tour-de-force and brings back to life the women who shaped our world. Greg Jenner’s You Are History (Walker Books) is a must for history lovers, regardless of their age. It is fun, accessible, clever, and engaging. Suzie Edge’s Mortal Monarchs (Headline Publishing Group) is a great entertaining book packed with lots of knowledge and information.
Agnès Poirier, author of Notre-Dame: The Soul of France
For a long time, French composer Reynaldo Hahn only existed in the public eye in relation to Marcel Proust, his lover and long-life friend. However, two books published this year in French, a biography, Philippe Blay’s Reynaldo Hahn (Fayard) and, at long last, Hahn’s diary, Journal 1890-1945 (Gallimard), shed light on a remarkable music talent and great memorialist. Hahn, of German and Jewish descent, Venezuelan by birth and Parisian by adoption, has recently seen his music reappraised and performed again to delighted audiences who had learnt to dismiss this high society figure of Paris’ Belle Époque. Foundation Bru, a renowned research centre focused on French romantic repertoire (1780-1920), has for instance spurred a whole new Hahn interest in music lovers with concerts throughout Europe. And both this biography and diary show Reynaldo Hahn to be truly erudite, a wry observer of his time and an eclectic classicist.
Will Quinn, Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs
Fresh off a superb biography of James A. Baker III, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser offer a broad but deeply sourced autopsy of the Trump administration. The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 (Penguin Random House) can be read in many ways: a first-cut at history, a dishy battleground between its sources over reputation, or a potential preview of coming attractions. Yet, amid all of the often shocking (if not always surprising) revelations that the book brings about COVID-19, the lead-up to January 6, the horrific vicissitudes of the migrant crisis, and Jared Kushner’s Middle East diplomacy, The Divider is a study in character: of Trump himself but, more importantly, of those who surrounded and dealt with him: their moral compromises, their private agendas and feuds, their efforts to manage or challenge the most chaotic presidency in recent memory. Plutarch would have relished and lamented such rich material.
John Raine, former British diplomat
Few periods of English history need a qualified guide more than the period between the departure of Roman rule and the arrival of the Normans. The period is infested with myths and unreliable and scant literature. But Marc Morris does in The Anglo Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England (Penguin). Morris charts the rise of institutions, the settling or borders, cultures and faiths and the contribution of key characters from the nation-forgers of Alfred and Aethelstan to the worldly Saints, Dunstan and Wilfred. Avoiding both hagiography and revisionism he freshens up the mud-spattered landscape of Anglo Saxon history with a sensitive coat of new learning and an intelligent re-reading of familiar sources. His balanced assessment of the enduring legacy of the Anglo Saxons (a pragmatic, miscegenated and quarrelsome people who identified as the English) leaves the reader in a world which is both entirely remote and yet sufficiently familiar to wonder what if anything was left for the Normans to contribute to England other than stone masons.
Suzanne Raine, Affiliate Lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University
My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird (MacLehose Press) is an anthology of short fiction by Afghan women, translated from Dari and Pashto. It has a wonderful intimacy, like being invited through the heart of their homes and into their imagination. They are not stories about women, but stories about Afghanistan by its women. And what a country: cold fingers, darkness, lack, helplessness, violence, loneliness, separation, superstition, tradition, God. But also, courage, fortitude, tea and almonds, occasionally hope, and even in all the bleakness some beauty: the sound of sparrows in the mulberry tree. We hope also that the authors found solace in the creative act of writing; the epigraph, written by Batool Haidari, promises: ‘It will tell you those thoughts we are not allowed to think, those dreams we are not allowed to dream.’
Peter Ricketts, author of Hard Choices
In The Hong Kong Diaries (Allen Lane) Chris Patten details his struggle as the last governor of Hong Kong to energise the dying days of British rule. Patten’s conviction that planting the seed of democracy would make Hong Kong more resilient after the handover to China will long be debated by historians, and this book will be an essential source. But it is also to be treasured for the brilliant and fierce concluding essay on China’s recent crackdown which has destroyed Hong Kong’s way of life. As Patten says, ‘Hong Kong’s fight is our fight’.
Andrew Roberts, author of The Chief
The Disciple (Zuleika) by Mark Mallon is a superb novel set in Florence in the 1980s about a thrusting young American art historian who falls under the spell of a snobbish but brilliant British art historian 47 years his senior. It allows the reader to ‘catch a glimpse of the last gasp of the Anglo-Florentine colony’ and is a wonderful read (especially between the lines).
Richard Davenport-Hines’ brilliantly scholarly Conservative Thinkers From All Souls College (Boydell & Brewer) plunges into the different but often overlapping and generally Tory philosophies expounded by some of Oxford’s finest minds, including Llewellyn Woodward, Keith Feiling, Herbert Hensley Henson, Quinton Hailsham, Cyril Falls and Cyril Radcliffe. Having written a biography of Edward Halifax myself, I can attest that Davenport-Hines’ essay on his ‘county spirit’ is as insightful as it is beautifully written.
Joshua Rovner, author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence
Cities are growing and armies are shrinking. The effects on warfare will be profound, writes Anthony King in Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century (Polity). Militaries will not have the luxury of reserving combat for open battlefields, nor will they have the manpower to overwhelm their enemies. Instead, urban warfare is likely to descend into a series of ‘micro-sieges’ as armies struggle to overcome the problems of fighting in complicated places. How they deal with these problems will affect how they organise and train for combat in cities. It will also have lasting social and political consequences for the people who live there.
Robert Gilpin once wrote that one loves a political realist. Realists, after all, dwell on the more dismal aspects of world politics: anarchy, insecurity, power, and war. But in An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics (Princeton University Press), Jonathan Kirshner makes a compelling case for reviving classical realism as a guide to understanding contemporary problems. Instead of viewing international relations through the lens of rational or structural theories, classical realism embraces the messiness and uncertainty of political life. It is also analytically modest, eschewing bold predictions in favor of a more contingent view of future events. Kirshner’s book is much the same, provocative and humble all at once.
Kori Schake, Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, AEI
The best book I read this year is Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology (Simon & Schuster), which traces the development of the silicon chip industry, engagingly explains both the technology and its significance — it reads like a beach novel, fulgent with stories of the interesting people who made possible this revolutionary technology and its business applications.
My favourite novel of the year is Kevin Wilson’s Now Is Not The Time To Panic (HarperCollins) a coming of age story about two bored teenagers aspiring to become significant by making art, and the consequences of what they in their innocence unleash.
Fay Schopen, writer and journalist
Ill health — a bolt from the blue, and in early 2022, a dire diagnosis. The first thing that went was my concentration. While books remain piled all around me — as they have done all my life — I now end my days lying in the darkness, face illuminated by my phone’s glow as I scroll Mumsnet, social media I have deemed ‘relaxing.’ But even a very sick person cannot live on Other People’s Problems alone (even if they do contain multitudes), and eventually I turned to Lisa Taddeo.
The author of Three Women in 2019 is an extraordinary writer, presenting wrenchingly painful truths about women’s lived experience. A suffocating horror fills the pages of Animal (Bloomsbury), her first work of fiction. The Topanga Canyon setting echoes Joan Didion and Brett Easton Ellis, transforming sunny Los Angeles into a disturbing place of rattlesnakes, coyotes, and disaster. This is a messy book, compelling in its sense of dread. You long for redemption for its protagonist, Joan, used and abused by men all her life, gradually giving reign to her raw and visceral anger. I put my phone down, and, as I read it during a hospital stay that felt more like imprisonment, I barely noticed how ravagingly disturbing it was until I insisted my sister read it too.
After that Ann Patchett’s book of essays These Precious Days (Bloomsbury) sounded like a palette cleanser. But, unfortunately, I read it during my most brutal hospital stay. Naturally, while seeking an escape from the chaos raging all around, and within, me, I found this book to be centred around an essay about incurable cancer, that dire, concentration-smashing diagnosis. It doesn’t matter. It’s a heartfelt and brilliant piece that breathes new life into the old adage ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Patchett never flinches from hard realities, but to spend time with her nevertheless offers a comforting literary embrace, wherever you might be, metaphorically or literally.
Michael Sheridan, author of The Gate to China
The rewards of Bruce Clark’s Athens, City of Wisdom (Head of Zeus) unfold from antiquity to the modern age. So concise and intelligent is the writing (as befits a veteran of The Economist) that it explains classical Greek politics, philosophy and culture while tracing a confident scholarly path through the little-known centuries of Byzantine and Ottoman rule, never losing sight of the numinous quality that makes Athens more than an earthly metropolis.
A different beauty is found in Kingdom of Characters (Penguin) by Jing Tsu, the story of the linguistic revolution that brought modern Chinese into being through a simplified script allowing poetry – and politics – to reach the masses.
Brendan Simms, Director at the Centre for Geopolitics, University of Cambridge
I hugely enjoyed Ian Morris’s Geography is Destiny. Britain and the World, a 10 000 year History (Profile Books), a wonderful piece of ‘big history’ by a Classicist and Archaeologist. With a light touch and plenty of vivid description, he shows how much the history of the British Isles has been shaped by its island status. I also very much liked Holger Afflerbach’s well-written and superbly researched On a Knife Edge. How Germany Lost the First World War (Cambridge University Press). Even those who still believe that allied industrial superiority loaded the dice heavily against the German Reich, will be engrossed by just how ’close-run’ the outcome actually was.
Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Oxford University
I loved Katherine Rundell’s scintillating biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber), a poet’s look at a poet’s life and work. Rundell’s prose is full of vital and engaging imagery: it’s the opposite of most books about poetry in being as poetic as its subject.
D.J. Taylor, author of Orwell: The Life
Two memoirs I very much liked were Back in the Day (Sceptre), Melvyn Bragg’s deeply-felt account of his Cumbrian childhood, and Just Go Down to the Road (Polygon), in which James Campbell remembers a Glasgow upbringing and a nomadic early life whose high points included busking with Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green on a kibbutz and hanging out with James Baldwin in the south of France. Few writers have approached this relatively unexplored quadrant of early ‘70s bohemia with such attack.
Helen Thompson, author of Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century
I most enjoyed two books, Deborah Cohen’s Last Call at the Hotel Imperial (Random House), and Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (Picador) which in very different ways engage with questions of historical time. Cohen beautifully tells the stories of a group of freewheeling American journalists who tried during the inter-war years to face up to the time in which they found themselves alive. McCarthy’s bewildering and exhilarating novel appears to confront the problem of living a life both with the knowledge that the universe is fated to vanish and where knowledge of what America became in the shadow of Auschwitz and Hiroshima demands attention but is inaccessible except perhaps in grief.
Rikard Westerberg, Director at the Center for Statecraft and Strategic Communication
‘Tolerating the distortion of history is the first step towards tolerating humiliation in real life’, writes the artist and activist Ai Weiwei in 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows (Vintage Publishing). In these fascinating memoirs, Ai Weiwei tells of not only his own struggle for creative freedom, but also that of his father, the poet Ai Qing who fell out of favor with Mao and was forced into a degrading exile as a political outcast in the Chinese backwaters. For anyone interested in the loss of truth in China and the obliteration of collective memory, this is a must read.
Duncan Wheeler, Chair of Spanish Studies, University of Leeds
I considered myself to be well versed in pop trivia until reading Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop (Faber). Bob Stanley, erstwhile member of indie-dance band St Etienne, argues that the genre as we (think we) know it can be traced back to the early twentieth-century. Stanley makes the case that industrial and musical continuities have been obfuscated by the close association of pop music with the emergence of the teenager as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Combining encyclopedic knowledge with wonderful titbits of knowledge and gossip, Stanley’s love for a much-maligned genre turns this into a genuine page turner even if I don’t share the author’s seeming disregard for pop’s other, rock music.
Muriel Zagha, critic
Two books illuminated for me the deep imprint left on French cinema by the Second World War, in particular the memory of the Occupation. Romy Schneider: A Star Across Europe (Bloomsbury) by Marion Hallet, traces the arc of the career of the German-Austrian actress, who reinvented herself as one of the most famous French film stars. Hallet sets Schneider’s Occupation-themed films in the context of the star’s ambivalent relationship with her German-Austrian background, and analyses the shift in focus – from heroic Resistance to Collaborationism – in French films of the 1970s and 1980s. Honour Among Thieves: The Cinema of J.P. Melville (Contra Mundum Press) by Andrew Dickos, is a study of an influential figure whose experiences in the Resistance marked his entire oeuvre, most famously the stark L’Armée des ombres (1969), a portrayal of total commitment to active rebellion and self-sacrifice.