For the seventh year in succession I want to open this year’s blog account with some recommendations of books I found particularly stimulating and/or enjoyable last year. Some of these occasioned individual blogs during the year while others, I hope, will still be of interest. I normally read about 50 books per year but last year read far fewer despite the enforced time at home. The reason is I read extensively when I travel. On a beach holiday I might read a book a day but in 2020 we only had one holiday and two trips to Spain where our children live. Three trips to Spain were cancelled at very short notice and also a cruise to Iceland when I would have read several books.
First, some history books:
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Peter Frankopan. Bloomsbury. 2015
This is a highly ambitious book in seeking to move the centre of gravity of world history eastward. Frankopan weaves the various stories of the Silk Roads together with the emergence of the first cities in Mesopotamia and the birth of empires in Persia, Rome and Constantinople, as well as the depredations by the Mongols, the transmission of the Black Death and the violent struggles over Western imperialism. Throughout the millennia, it was the appetite for foreign goods that brought East and West together, driving economies and the growth of nations. On balance I think his attempt is successful.
Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. Joshua B. Freeman. Norton. New York. 2018
I blogged on this recently.[i]
This is a thoroughly researched work of scholarship. It tells the story of the factory and examines how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares of industrialisation and profound social change. He begins with the early textile mills in northern England that powered the Industrial Revolution, then moves to the factory towns of New England, through the Ford-led innovations of the production line and finishes with today’s behemoths making everything from trainers to toys to mobile phones in China and Vietnam. He skilfully demonstrates how factories have shaped our societies and the challenges we face now.
Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War. Tim Bouverie. The Bodley Head. London. 2019
Tim Bouverie was a political journalist at Channel 4 News from 2013-2017 where he covered all major political events including both the 2015 and 2016 General Elections and the EU referendum. This is his first book and for a debut it is remarkable. You may think that this is a familiar story of indecision, failed diplomacy and parliamentary infighting that enabled Nazi domination of Europe but Bouverie draws on previously unseen sources and presents an unforgettable portrait of the ministers, aristocrats and amateur diplomats whose actions and inaction had devastating consequences. In particular he lays waste to the idea presented by Chamberlain’s supporters that Chamberlain bought time at Munich in which Britain could prepare for war. Firstly, Chamberlain did not understand Hitler. He was used to dealing with business men and people in local government who were reasonable and honest like him. Hitler was not. Secondly, Germany developed much more military strength than Britain during the period leading up to the invasion of Poland.
Next, a biography.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. Volume Three: Herself Alone. Charles Moore. Allen Lane. London. 2019
This third volume concludes Charles Moore’s (now Lord Moore) biography of Margaret Thatcher. The work is widely acknowledged as an astounding achievement, among the all-time great works of political biography, perhaps ranking alongside my personal favourite, Robert Caro’s multiple volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Thatcher is often criticised for her divisiveness but she came to power because the country in 1979 was deeply divided, and indeed where her divisiveness was more critical was within her own party, which led to her downfall. Though Moore was authorized by Thatcher to write her biography it was on condition that she did not read the manuscript and the book should not appear in her lifetime. It has taken longer to write than she spent at the top of British politics. Moore has had access to all her papers and interviewed many senior politicians all round the world. Moore is scrupulously fair throughout, never failing to point out her failings but still showing that she was one of the very greatest Prime Ministers this country has had. He concludes: “The woman so often criticised for being ‘uncaring’ cared more than any prime minister before or since about what she thought was her task. She gave everything she could”.
Then some books on current challenges:
The Strange Death of Europe. Douglas Murray. Bloomsbury. Revised edition. London. 2018
This is the most disturbing political book I have read for some time. Based on travels through key European centres and interviews with leading politicians, Murray weaves a tale of uncontrolled immigration, failed multiculturalism, systemic self-doubt, cultural suicide and disingenuous political leadership. For me it is accurate, insightful and devastating. Disagree passionately if you will but in that case you must confront the evidence the author puts before you.
The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken. Anonymous. Macmillan. London. 2018
I blogged on this in May[ii]
. The author publishes blogs anonymously and has now published this award winning book. He or she works in the criminal justice system and everyday sees how fairness is not guaranteed. Too often the system fails those it is meant to protect. The innocent are wronged and the guilty allowed to walk free. He or she shows how the system is broken, who broke it and why we should start caring before it’s too late. For some it already is.
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along… Iain Dale. Harper Collins. London. 2020
This is a superb and most welcome book. Iain Dale is a well-known presenter on LBC who is unfailingly courteous, unlike many of his colleagues, while forensic in his interviewing style. In the age of Brexit, Trump, social media and fake news, Dale accepts that politics is always tribal but even hostile tribes need to parlay and he shows how we can disagree better.
And two books on specific topics.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bill Bryson. Doubleday. London. 2019.
Bill Bryson found fame with his witty travel writing both about his native America and his adopted country of Britain. But he showed with A Short History of Nearly Everything that he can master complex subjects and explain them in simple terms. Here he takes on the question of exactly how the human body works and what goes on inside it and soon finds it is infinitely more complex and wondrous, and often more mysterious, than he had ever expected. He leaves nothing out and shows how in general we are an astonishing story of success. The history of how we have tried to master our biology and stave off disease is packed with forgotten heroes. I was alarmed just how often the Nobel Prize was awarded to the wrong man who stole the research from a junior. And I was also alarmed that in researching the book with experts in biology and medicine they were clear that the biggest threat came from ‘flu. I bought the paperback edition where Bryson updated his book with a brief afterword on Covid-19. Writing in April 2020 he concludes "Next time let’s be better prepared”.
The Wisdom of Markets and the Madness of Crowds. John Nugée. OMFIF. London. 2020.
John is a good friend of mine and a fellow Livery Past Master. He has worked in finance and markets for over 40 years, first as a central banker and a manager of large portfolios, then as an adviser to others managing portfolios. In this slim but concise volume he effectively gives guidance on investment psychology. You can buy direct from the publisher using this link: https://www.omfif.org/the-wisdom-of-markets-and-the-madness-of-crowds/.
This has the added advantage that P&P in the UK is included in the price!
Fiction: I read good books from many of my favourite authors: Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Bernard Cornwell, Michael Dobbs, John Grisham, Jack Higgins, Alexander Kent, and Ian Rankin. I am indebted to my sister for introducing me to another writer from the Nordic Noir genre. Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian writer whom some regard as the king of Nordic crime fiction. His books have sold over 45 million copies worldwide. His character Harry Hole is a detective in the Oslo police force.
Knife is the twelfth book in the series published in English translation in 2019, but while referring to previous events it can be read as a stand-alone, and many regard it as his best yet.