MixedThe Observer (UK)Whether from sympathy (Garrett admits to his own prepper instincts) or academic discipline, the author displays a great deal more tolerance for the cast of conspiracy theorists, paranoiacs, libertarians and hucksters he encounters than many readers might possess. In my narrow-minded case, I find I rapidly lose interest in someone’s opinions the moment they declare that 9/11 was an inside job ... However, when Garrett gets an earful of Truther nonsense, he doesn’t rush to judgment. And he hears a lot of that kind of talk as he visits various bleak bunker sites across America, all of which promise to keep out the coming apocalypse.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Bregman has a Gladwellian gift for sifting through academic reports and finding anecdotal jewels. And, like the Canadian populariser, he’s not afraid to take his audience on a digressive journey of discovery ... despite the almost bewildering array of characters and information, Bregman never loses sight of his central thesis ... There’s a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and thought-provoking book and a wealth of evidence in support of the contention that the sense of who we are as a species has been deleteriously distorted. But it seems equally misleading to offer the false choice of Rousseau and Hobbes when, clearly, humanity encompasses both ... There will always be a battle between our altruistic and selfish instincts, our openness and our protectiveness – it is the very stuff of human drama. Still, if the devil has all the best tunes, it makes a welcome change to read such a sustained and enjoyable tribute to our better natures.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... there are all manner of definitional and cultural issues through which Gladwell boldly navigates a rather convenient path. But in doing so he crafts a compelling story, stopping off at prewar appeasement, paedophilia, espionage, the TV show Friends, the Amanda Knox and Bernie Madoff cases, suicide and Sylvia Plath, torture and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, before coming to a somewhat pat conclusion ... seldom less than a fascinating study of gullibility and the social necessity of trusting strangers.
MixedThe ObserverHuber retells the self-annihilation of May 1945 in dispassionate, vivid detail, but after a while the sheer repetition of \'ordinary Germans\' ending their lives begins to dull the senses. At around about halfway through the book, he shifts the narrative back to the early days of optimism, when Hitler first came to power. It’s a rather jarring turn in direction that revisits some well-trodden ground, although Huber seeks to find new paths by using the recollections of some of the diarists he introduces earlier in the book. But little new light is shed on what we already know. Nonetheless, reading the testaments of people who’d come through a period of great uncertainty in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the liberal order seemingly spent, it’s hard not to hear faint echoes in our current plight. As they do now, people then craved simple, emotional answers to complex economic and political problems.
RaveThe Observer (UK)There have been many testaments to the cruelties of Auschwitz, but few have followed its development from concentration camp to extermination camp with such gripping descriptive power ... This vivid portrait is of someone who is no way a larger-than-life or conspicuous hero, but instead a man with a remarkable sense of faith, despite the most inhospitable conditions, in human decency ... Pilecki’s tale is well known in Poland, but now finally this towering figure has been brought to the attention of a much wider global audience. Fairweather’s book is an impressive feat of research, organised by a keen moral intelligence and written with the elegance and pace of a first-rate thriller.
RaveThe ObserverMalcolm has finally received the biography that his unique role in black and global resistance culture demands ... [Marable] has left a meticulous, comprehensive and fair-minded portrait of both Malcolm and the turbulent period of American history in which he lived and died.
RaveThe GuardianSuch is Aleksandar Hemon\'s bountiful gift for language that the Bosnian-American writer has drawn comparison with Nabokov, that genius of word selection ... it\'s a sensibility – at once mordant and exuberant, comic and subtle – that Hemon traces to a distinctive Slavic outlook ... a thoughtfully humorous and profoundly sad memoir-cum-collection of essays ... Hemon does with Sarajevo what Orhan Pamuk has done for Istanbul, which is to say he brings to life a city in ways that have little to do with its received image ... [Hemon\'s] beautifully assembled vignettes are often digressive but they invariably come back to a particular point and it\'s usually not the point that you were expecting. Because Hemon, who witnessed the wilful ruination of his famously civilised hometown, knows that life doesn\'t proceed in straight narrative lines ... a writer who knows how to make words succeed in the most unpromising places.
PositiveThe Guardian\"... a detailed and compelling account of the spread of opioid addiction across the so-called rust belt, said to be the deadliest drug epidemic in American history ... In many ways, McGreal’s book reads like a white-collar The Wire, with a cast of characters determined to exact as much money as possible regardless of the human cost.\
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
PositiveThe GuardianSummer begins with Knausgaard continuing his encyclopaedic summaries of things and concepts ... electric hand mixers, which, he notes, unlike almost everything else human-made, resemble nothing else in nature ... It’s a charming but head-scratching piece poised elusively between the absurd and the profound—a description that applies to most, if not all, the entries. They can be enjoyed for the ideas and images Knausgaard conjures seemingly out of nowhere, or at least out of such everyday material to which most of us give so little thought that nowhere might as well be their provenance ... He is...endlessly curious about the world. It’s just that his perceptions of it are so particular, and so much the product of his internalized debate, that the world ends up being one vast, if often fascinating, projection of Knausgaard’s restless mind.
MixedThe Guardian\"But Smarsh’s book never coheres into either a vivid memoir or a damning indictment of America’s growing social divisions. It tries to do both without fully achieving either. The problem is partly because Smarsh, now an academic and journalist, adopts a sentimental structure of addressing the book to the daughter she might easily have had (but didn’t) as a teenager. And it’s partly because the story’s terrain – poor girl works hard and makes good – is dense with cliches, many of which Smarsh doesn’t make enough effort to avoid. There’s a self-romanticising element to the prose that can read like a Bruce Springsteen lyric – all Chevy Caprices and wide-open highways – and men tend to be characterised as either women-beating thugs or salt-of-the-earth heroes ... However, [Smarsh] makes a strong case that it’s both wrong and counterproductive to dismiss the white working class of America’s heartlands as Trump-supporting deplorables.\
MixedThe Observer\"That use of \'tabloid readers\' is revealing of a slightly condescending attitude that Graeber can’t quite suppress. Although his sympathies are with blue-collar workers, who often have \'shit jobs\' (and, of course, may well read tabloid newspapers), he is often contemptuous of white-collar workers with their \'bullshit jobs\' ... With its snarky tone and laboured arguments, I’m not sure this is the book to ignite a larger debate. Despite its length, it doesn’t develop a theory that’s notably more sophisticated than the Strike! essay. Too much time is spent on nailing down flip typologies ... But Graeber is clearly right when he notes that as individuals we crave something more than social acceptance–we also hanker after meaning. He is at his most interesting when he grapples with that age-old economic problem of \'value,\' the idea related to skilled labour that many of us continue to think of as inherently meaningful.\
PositiveThe Guardian\"The novel is peopled by free-floating founts of intellectualism, struggling with the social shackles that paradoxically continue to bind them. It’s as if Cusk has wearied of the business of constructing characters in which to place her ideas, as though characterisation were itself a kind of stifling confinement ... Although Cusk is far from a didactic writer (one of Faye’s interviewers helpfully performs the role of a feminist critic), she is intimately concerned with the architecture of women’s lives, the institutions and expectations – marriage, motherhood, loyalty – that continue to shape everyday experiences. But Cusk is too sophisticated a writer to cast women as innocent victims. In Kudos they are more often collaborators and conspirators in their own subjection ... There were times in Kudos when I felt an authorial impatience with the form Cusk has so profitably unearthed, as though something gloriously fruitful was in danger of hardening into a stubborn conceit. But such nagging apprehensions were in the end extinguished by an unsettling and comically primal final scene that, like so much else in these books, will live long in the memory.\
PanThe GuardianHere she suggests that while America has enjoyed great success as a melting pot, its failures – discrimination, injustice, inequality – stem from this unwillingness to recognise the importance of ethnic and tribal affinities. As far as it goes, that’s a thesis that is unlikely to provoke a storm of dissent for the good reason that it’s large incontrovertible. However, it’s when Chua attempts to expand her argument into the ever more complex world of identity politics that the book begins to lose its way or, rather, the picture blurs into a series of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hedge … A well-intentioned book that never quite comes together.
RaveThe GuardianBelonging, which covers the period from 1492 to 1900, is concerned with the Jewish search for security and the efforts – both coerced and voluntary – at assimilation in Europe... Although this is an ambitious doorstop of a book, Schama is not interested in history writ large. His signature method is to recount the plight of individuals against the swirling backdrop of events. It’s a high-wire approach that can leave the reader wondering if the extended anecdotes...maintains the attention with the vividness of his writing and his talent for unearthing gripping figures full of human contradictions ...a narrative that could easily be rendered as a stirring tale of noble victims overcoming mindless victimisation ... Schama is too subtle a writer and historian to succumb to that temptation ...profoundly illuminating book.
RaveThe GuardianThe internet has changed us, our means of communication, what we believe to be true, our identities and sense of self. That is a statement of such obviousness that we rarely stop to think about what it all actually means. But Andrew O’Hagan explores these themes with great depth and originality ... Squeezed between two compelling character studies is a relatively short essay entitled 'The Invention of Ronald Pinn.' This Nabokovian-sounding figure is a dead man of around O’Hagan’s age whom the author reanimates online, creating a series of supporting fake identities on social media. It’s a strange, slightly haunting voyage into digital life that reads as much like a short story as an essay. It ends with O’Hagan encountering the dead man’s mother. And suddenly, at the core of this excellent collection, we glimpse the unbridgeable difference between the real and the invented.
MixedThe GuardianThe second title, while riding on the first, is also a subtle admission that a) it’s more of the same and b) less definitive than the original, which as sports memoirs go was very readable and full of compelling insight into its author’s troubled mind...And so McEnroe rehashes many of the stories from the first autobiography and adds in tales from the seniors circuit. But again, does anyone really care about the seniors circuit? ... we come to that area of McEnroe’s life that has flourished so well post-tennis that he could stake a valid claim to be the new world No 1 in the field: name-dropping. Boy, you could get backache from bending down to pick up all the dropped names that litter these pages ... Yes, he’s sending himself up a bit, but he also wants us to know that Seinfeld lives 'below' him. The brash, insecure kid from Queens once again disproves that old saw about there being no second acts in American life. There are, but as this second autobiography shows, it’s usually just the first act reworked in a new setting.
PositiveThe GuardianWaldman, who is married to the novelist Michael Chabon, is a smart writer with an easy tone. As a suburban mother of four, she nicely plays up how unlike the archetypal acid tripper she is. The neurological and pharmaceutical science is well handled and she makes a strong case for medicinal LSD. But perhaps what the book does best is demystify the chemical mythology of drugs. Even crystal meth started out as a treatment for depression. As Williams says, there are people who can take it, have an enjoyable time and then continue with their lives. The same is true of heroin and LSD. However, there are also the casualties, those people who should never go near drugs. The sad irony is they are often the ones who are least able to resist them.
RaveThe Guardian...a joyfully intelligent appraisal of the major US series – the box sets – that have taken TV to previously unexplored heights over the past decade or two ... James takes a serious, or at least lengthy, look at some remarkable extended pieces of drama. It makes for brilliantly illuminating reading. It’s also very funny. For all his studied perceptiveness and weighty literary references, James possesses an irrepressible comic gift ... what makes these essays so worthwhile is the epigrammatic manner in which they add to the experience of watching or having watched first-rate television.
MixedThe Guardian“Ultimately MacFarquhar can’t decide what she thinks about her subjects’ do-gooding.”