MixedThe Guardian (UK)Martin Amis begins this baggy, curious book with an account of how it nearly wasn’t written. He had a go at it more than a decade ago, he confesses … We start…with the author, like Jagger on the opening leg of the latest farewell tour, cranking himself up to deliver the hits … There have always been two extremes in Amis’s writing, that brilliant observational gift for ironies and a sort of elevated melodrama that stands in for a fuller range of emotion. Both still compete for attention here. There are perfectly crafted scenes that capture the creeping shocks of mortality …but they are rarely left to speak for themselves. Instead, they are bookended with mannered, self-absorbed reflections on the Holocaust, or the state of Israel, or the fall of the twin towers, or hangovers, or full stops.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Osman essays an authorial voice that captures a bit of the cadence of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, or at least the odd hot flush of Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies ... Osman handles his cast of eccentrics with the aplomb of a gameshow host, and a few too many authorial winks to camera, sensing, you imagine, with every barely credible plot twist, a franchise in the making.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... there is, in each of these essays, a clear sense of the sensibility that is doing the looking: patient, alert, learned and excitable ... Macdonald is making it her mission to communicate as exactly as possible what wood warblers and a host of other species are, in the hope that her words are not obituaries. Her description of \'flying ant day\', that summer afternoon in Britain when patios become swarming airfields, is a memorable example of her ability not only to itemise the world around her, but to celebrate its essential and profound connectedness. Her focus typically shifts from the extraordinary drama of ant queens taking flight, trailing pheromones, enticing the worker drones chasing them aloft to mate in a fatal last act, to the gulls and swifts and a single red kite drawn to their rising column ... This book is thrillingly full of such moments; it is, too, a powerful – and entertaining – corrective to the idea that the only hopes that matter on this planet are those of our own species.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Sonia Shah’s last two books...introduced her as a storyteller in a novel genre: travel books that went in search of the spread of disease - cholera in the former, malaria in the latter. That literature of track and trace, part detective story, part reportage, took Shah to remote corners of the world and to distant grid references of history. Her books were also prescient case studies of the way that human progress has been shaped by its love-hate relationship with microbes – how disease has caused empires to rise and fall and economies to stutter and implode ... This book – a wandering narrative about why people wander – is likely to prove equally prophetic in the coming months and years, since it asks two questions that are already shaping our geopolitics: what causes human beings to migrate? And is such mass movement beneficial to more settled communities and nations? ... [Shah\'s] compulsive investigation into these questions becomes a political history of the human urge to move from one place to another ... [a] fascinating study.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)In the unspooling sentences and paragraphs of the many fine and often seriously dandy essays... Wood shows himself a maestro of tone and inflection. His sustained close attention as he interrogates the writers he loves is genuinely something to behold. There is playfulness in this attention – Wood is drawn to droll comedy as the most reliable form of wisdom – but you would rarely conclude that he has let his instincts off the leash of his intellect ... Wood’s earlier essays are more sure of themselves, more eager to please, packed with the kind of aphoristic insights that might have undergraduates reaching for their highlighter pens ... Wood’s intent in these readings was often to elucidate those moments when fiction captures the mysteries of consciousness, when it performs that magic of escaping its creator’s bounds, and to revel in his ability to detect the wonderful illusion ... In later essays, mostly those written for the New Yorker, there is a more grounded and relaxed voice; a bit less desire to display fizzing erudition, a bit more concern for the messiness of emotional truth ... There is, as a thread through these pieces, and beyond them, a kind of spiritual quest in Wood’s writing...
RaveThe Observer (UK)O’Connell has a gift for channelling the \'sense of looming crisis\' that characterises our times, but is able to step outside it, to bring it into focus ... O’Connell exposes their schemes with a likable zeal. His journey to the post-apocalypse hideaway of PayPal founder Peter Thiel is in itself a wonderful piece of journalism ... Having looked on these human ruins, [O\'Connell] finds himself, counterintuitively, resisting Ozymandias-like despair. What brings him back to life is the birth of his second child ... Her presence, that \'tiny engine of joy\' she represents, is beautifully evoked by O’Connell, in passages that capture exactly that mixture of impossible vulnerability and responsibility, the enforced mindfulness of new parenthood ... O’Connell’s journey...does not always make comfortable reading with the world grinding to a halt outside, but he leaves the reader with that word, which offers the gift of making any future possible: \'unless.\'
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... compulsively readable ... Cahalan, having unearthed these damning caveats, is not as damning as she might be ... Is it possible, as Chief Bromden observed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that Rosenhan’s findings represented \'the truth even if it didn’t happen\'? Cahalan is honest enough as a writer to leave that question hanging, having presented important and spirited cases both for the prosecution and the defence.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)This is quite a long book in praise of brevity ... These essays, written over several decades, illuminate Davis’s own processes while attending to the work of writers and artists she admires. She is in some ways the most honestly solipsistic of writers – her narrators are rarely set in the context of society or even company; their voices, conscious of written language, emerge with minimal framing ... Her essays about experimenting with genre experiment with genre ... There are inspired responses to other obsessive de-clutterers, from the artist Joseph Cornell and his boxes of ticky-tacky to the compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and his web of definition. There is a rangy meditation on the idea of fragments, which includes a memorable section on the poet Mallarmé’s use of the ellipsis ... There are lists of recommendations for good writing habits, with digressions on digression, and a focus on etymology, for knowing the metaphorical origins of words ... The voice of these essays never forgets its own limitations, or the inherent comedy of passing critical judgment.
PositiveThe GuardianGoldblatt’s previous books...all had a slightly more hopeful cast than this one. They generally viewed the arc of the beautiful game, it seemed, as bending toward harmony between nations, the ultimate leveller of playing fields. Just over a decade on from that first book, however, Goldblatt emphasises more troubling evidence of the ways in which the sport has been used to divide peoples ... What is clear from Goldblatt’s indefatigable study is that, almost anywhere in the world apart from North America, no would-be dictator or democratic rabble-rouser or theocratic patriarch can afford to neglect the passions aroused in the hearts of football fans ... Goldblatt could go on and often does ... This is not a book for the armchair reader of either football or global politics, but it is an irrefutable argument against anyone who might still suggest that either is only a game.
RaveThe ObserverPeter Pomerantsev is emerging as the pre-eminent war reporter of our time, the Martha Gellhorn or Ed Murrow of the brutal campaigns against fact ... It is required – and bleakly entertaining – reading for anyone wanting to understand the surreal scale and intent of the efforts to destabilise democracies ... Pomerantsev punctuates his investigations with fragments of memoir, which illustrate the fact that he was, in many ways, born to his current role ... Pomerantsev offers compelling fine detail of the ways in which social media campaigns would stoke fears about threats to a national way of life and offer simplistic solutions.
RaveThe Observer (UK)...[a] wonderful novel ... [Beryl and Shimi] are perfect Jacobson heroes. They allow him to display all his virtuoso way with words, while indulging that deep understanding of the rival cultural memory of the last century carried in the heads of Shimi...and the war widow Beryl. No other novelist writing in Britain could dramatise this nonagenarian love story with greater verve and tenderness, while never forgetting that this is a resplendently comedic form ... Jacobson has clearly done half a lifetime of looking at the streets in which Shimi wanders and through which Beryl is driven. One of the many joys of this book is the way it effortlessly captures the distinctive atmosphere of Finchley Road itself, a dual carriageway that is punctuated with outsize supermarkets but retains the ghosts of a 1950s high street. Jacobson uses this cityscape to reinforce the understanding that both Beryl and Shimi rail against in different and quietly heroic ways: that ultimately we are not given a choice what our sadistic memory has us remember – unless, that is, we find some new neural pathways to wander along in the present.
Svetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... like all of [Alexievich’s] books, works by accretion. There are more than a hundred accounts of childhood, each told with a familiar, blunt poignancy ... It is tempting to compare Alexievich’s work to that of the great oral historians, such as Studs Terkel – a closer cousin is John Hersey’s indelible account of the survivors of Hiroshima – but there is a special sort of clear-eyed humility to her reporting. She apparently gets entirely out of the way of her subjects and lets them do all the telling. Her only preface here is a pointed quote from Dostoevsky asking if ideology, revolution, war, ever justifies the tears of even one child. Alexievich’s life’s work, as an attentive listener to all the collected sorrows and stubborn survival of her homeland, quietly, unflinchingly and unforgettably serves to answer that question in the negative.
Randolph M. Nesse
PositiveThe GuardianThis intriguing book turns some age-old questions about the human condition upside down ... Nesse, formerly both a professor of psychology and psychiatry and now the director of the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University was never, of course, going to offer definitive answers to these questions. Rather, in an engaging, storytelling voice that rests on 30 years of clinical practice, he offers a series of insights, both scientific and anecdotal, that begins to show why the vulnerabilities in our psyche are fundamental to the survival of our genes ... His book, a mixture of such research and well-caveated speculation, addresses the thornier questions of psychiatry with a pragmatic curiosity.
PositiveThe ObserverWhitehead unspools that recent history with a true storyteller’s certainty ... Whitehead’s recreation of this enclosed world, the central section of his novel, is both highly detailed and emotionally exacting ... Whitehead neither sentimentalises nor exaggerates the tale that emerges. He writes with a clear-eyed calm, letting his characters, particularly Elwood, speak for themselves ... Colson Whitehead’s book is not a polemic, but in presenting the unconscionable history of this particular institution, keeping boys in solitary confinement or even burying them \'out the back\', he once again builds an allegorical history that resonates in the present.
RaveThe Observer\"[McEwan\'s] gift of observation, wonderfully precise, now comes thick and fast. There is next to nothing in this novel that feels forced; the author\'s mature attention illuminates equally everything it falls on ... This being McEwan, the accident eventually hardens into something much darker and involves questions of how humane and civilised men might confront terror to protect things they hold dear. On this Saturday of all Saturdays, such questions carry complex implications. And the answers, in this profound and urgent novel, are never less than surprising.\
PositiveThe ObserverIt’s not easy to establish the once-upon-a-time, wild-wood atmosphere of this book and make it credible. Porter’s writing taps into some of the rooted English strangeness of an Alan Garner, or even Thomas Hardy, and gives it a pared-down energy. He is unafraid of risking self-parody; at times some of the typographic tricks he employed in the first book feel like an indulgence here, lines curling and jumping and disappearing into tiny point sizes as Lanny climbs a tree, but mostly you are more than happy to go along with it just for the crackle of the imagery and Porter’s ear for dialogue. There is too...a genuine raw emotional edge. It’s the oldest of all page-turning devices to introduce the most trusting of boys and shadow him with unseen peril, but Porter does it with eyes wide open, satirizing in his glancing way every single detective-story cliche and true-crime platitude.
Edouard Louis, Trans. by Lorin Stein
PositiveThe GuardianThis book, published in France more than a year ago, is a short, sharp shock ... The author does not so much put words into his old man’s mouth as seek to find some hard-won common ground with him. It is a kind of love letter, but one that admits only the bluntest truths ... In short, intense bursts of prose Louis unpacks the reality of...shame, by examining over and again the sources of it in what has gone on between himself and his father ... The sentiments...in this small book, are not straightforwardly persuasive, and they offer few interesting answers. Louis sacrifices some of the nuance of his first novel for a more bludgeoning polemical directness. The result, even so, speaks with an emotional authenticity and a stylistic confidence that is hard to ignore.
PositiveThe GuardianMorrison structures the novel in her familiar manner, giving one chapter by turns to each competing voice, collapsing time frames, seldom letting her characters directly rub up against one another, trapping each of them in their biographies. In this way, she creates something that lives powerfully as an invented oral history and that seems to demand to be taken as a parable, but one whose meaning— which lives in the territory of harshness and sacrifice—is constantly undermined or elusive ... In this book, a good deal of Morrison\'s stark, almost biblical imaginative power is on display, without all of her former detailing energy ... she is capable of creating fictional environments in which everything can come to seem symbolic[.]
PositiveThe Observer\"Means has a practised gift for putting you in the head of his narrators. The title story, \'Instructions for a Funeral,\' is a wonderful set-piece dramatic monologue that updates, for example, the last requests of Robert Browning’s bishop ordering his tomb ... The crafted ironies of these stories often put you in mind of the modern American greats of the form, including Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff ... Means’s sentences, and his supple intelligence, prove a match for the task at hand.\
RaveThe Guardian\"There are well over 800 close-typed pages in the drama of his subject’s defiant second act; it is a tribute both to the life and to The Life that so few of these pages seem superfluous ... There have been other attempts to capture Bellow’s overflowing lust for life... but this will stand as the definitive account.\
Jeanne Marie Laskas
PositiveThe GuardianIt makes a moving and inevitably nostalgic or even elegiac read, redolent of the human grace and statesmanship of the Obama presidency, qualities so brutally absent in the current administration ... beautifully researched and written.
PositiveThe GuardianAs a preface to a collection that is told entirely in a mostly likable, self-dramatizing personal voice, Franzen suggests that he was raised \'with a midwestern horror of yakking too much about myself\' ... The...two pieces of advice he was given by his editor were these: \'every essay, even a think piece, tells a story\' and \'there are only two ways to organize material: ‘like goes with like’ and ‘this followed that’.\' He goes on, of course, to employ those simple-sounding dictums in supple and seemingly effortless ways ... The article of hope or faith that...Franzen... still cling[s] to is the idea that serious, humane thinking and writing, of the kind that teases out the truth of the world, can still generate enlightenment ... It does so—as...[this collection] of essays nimbly demonstrate[s]—by allowing you to watch and enjoy another mind confront the world at its most problematic. It feels like a dying art.
PositiveThe Observer\"Benjamin Balint’s account of this saga is both a fine journalistic telling of that half century of courtroom drama, and a revealing examination of the writer and the relationships at its heart ... Balint brings all of these forces and arguments to vivid life as the appeal edges toward a verdict.\
Nelson Mandela, Ed. by Sahm Venter
PositiveThe GuardianNelson Mandela’s long, thoughtful letters, written during his 27 years in prison, display an unwavering certainty that change would prevail ... Even in the knowledge that he was often writing into darkness, he kept up that most reasonable and patient of voices – rarely acknowledging anger, even less despair ... In his letters he is at pains to inhabit his roles as father and husband and son and uncle and friend, just as surely as if he were a free man ... Mandela’s written rhetoric was so seductive, even he was in thrall to it.
Edouard Louis, Trans. Lorin Stein
PositiveThe GuardianA profoundly personal book ... The self-consciousness can occasionally feel contrived, or at least French, but the book at heart is both brave and ambitious in its determination never to let its reader, or its author, escape lightly the damaging realities it describes.
PositiveThe GuardianSnyder is very astute at joining the dots in how Russian propagandists, human or digital, sought to spread fake news to undermine faith in the democratic process, at the same time giving overt support to European separatists and Russia TV regulars such as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage ... One unavoidable conclusion of this depressing tale lies in the acknowledgment that Putin’s strategy has been so successful in shaking faith in the sanctity of fact and expert knowledge. A measure of that assault comes when you examine your reaction to this meticulously researched and footnoted book as you read it. Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale. His book Bloodlands, about the fallout of second world war atrocities on the eastern front, won the prestigious Hannah Arendt prize and was described by the late, great Tony Judt as \'the most important book to appear on this subject in decades\'. And yet as he unfolds this contemporary sequel, you might well hear, as I did from time to time, those sneery voices now lodged in your head that whisper of \'liberal elitism\' and \'fake news\' and \'MSM\' and \'tempting conspiracies\', and which refuse ever, quite, to be quieted. How did we get here? Snyder has a good idea.
Anthony Ray Hinton, co-written with Lara Love Hardin
PositiveThe GuardianHinton’s account of the way he existed through what he called his 'legal lynching' is a story of forgiveness and struggle – and a story of friendship and imagination ... His wonderful memoir recreates the ways he escaped from his cell in his head – had tea with the Queen of England, married Halle Berry – and how he shared that possibility with his fellow death row inmates. He persuaded the guards to let them start a book group (inevitably, among the first up was To Kill a Mockingbird); he mentored prisoners about the need to replace anger and despair with hope and self-respect. On the day Stevenson came, though, he sank to his knees and said a heartfelt prayer: 'I trust things happen in your time, Lord, so I’m not going to ask why you didn’t send Bryan earlier… [but] take care of him because he is doing your work…'
PositiveThe GuardianLightman does not possess Calvino’s structural rigour, his brilliant hold on irony as the defining principle of the human condition, but his discursive method is full of insight into some of the mysteries of the physical world, as well as the physics of mystery. He uses his own biography – the little science lab he created in his bedroom closet in Memphis, Tennessee, aged 12 – to demonstrate an intact sense of wonder at what we know and what we don’t. At the heart of his mediation is this neat formulation of the boundaries of scientific understanding: \'The infinite is not merely a lot more of the finite.\' Lightman has a sympathetic gift for recreating the leaps of faith in scientific advance ... At the same time, he feels himself in a wonderland of shifting scales. He maps out the heavens, concentrates on the veins of a leaf, tries to fathom the evolution of the humming bird, the veracity of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and returns often to the thrilling chutzpah of Einstein rethinking time and space. Does he end up much the wiser after this latest record of attention to his pattern-making mind? Of course not. Does that make the effort of tracking his progress worthwhile? Of course.
RaveThe GuardianThis sense of prelapsarian history does not necessarily hobble Smith’s compendious musings – a brick of an essay collection like this one is the acknowledgment of a certain status in a novelist, something like a \'major retrospective\' for a painter – but it does make several of them read like lively period pieces ... There is next to nothing in these pages that could be classed as \'reporting\' in the sense of going out into a less friendly corner of the messy walkable world and testing what you think you know against what you find. Smith is not an essayist in the mode of a Joan Didion, someone who likes to pitch up in a place and try to make sense of it. Instead she uses the format to engage in sort of cultural thought experiments from her desk ...her writing is just about sharp enough to have you stick with her through a deconstruction of the self-involvement of Justin Bieber as seen through the lens of the philosopher Martin Buber, but you may not be convinced of the point.
RaveThe GuardianMokhtar’s tale, for which Eggers makes himself the conduit, starts out as a story of the frustration of second-generation immigrant assimilation and becomes an anecdotal history of coffee culture and practice. It ends as a kind of breathless thriller as Mokhtar braves militia roadblocks, kidnappings and multiple mortal dangers in order to get his first coffee samples to a producers’ conference in Seattle, the make or break for his business. In some senses, particularly at the outset, you wonder if this narrative would work best as a brilliant long-read magazine article. However, as it goes on, as Eggers explodes Mokhtar’s tale to book length, with all the detail that implies, you start to understand his wider purpose. He is anxious to put not only Mokhtar’s story on the page, but somehow Mokhtar himself, all his hopes, all his obstacles. Look at this extraordinary American, Eggers’s attention says. And more to the point, look at him at this particular moment; give him some proper time; no story is more urgent.
RaveThe GuardianFord’s account of his father’s death is an extraordinary piece of writing. The more so, here, because it leads him in to the story of his mother, told 30 years ago, when that memory was more proximate but maybe less raw. The disjunction creates questions for the reader. Does experience change the ways we remember? ... The act of writing those lives, has been if anything, Ford suggests, less poignant for him than a 'source of immense exhilaration.' His readers, those with parents, and those without them, will feel that too.
RaveThe GuardianSnyder’s beautifully weighted book is the perfect clear-eyed antidote to that deliberate philistinism ('I love the poorly educated,' as Trump chillingly observed). Always measured in their observation, these 128 pages are a brief primer in every important thing we might have learned from the history of the last century, and all that we appear to have forgotten. Snyder is ideally placed to distil those urgent lessons.
RaveThe GuardianIn these seductively erudite 300 pages, Steven Johnson makes the contrarian case for a more glass-half-full theory of ingenuity. He argues, mostly persuasively, that the major advances in technology and culture have been more often the result of our craving for distraction and for delight rather than for survival ... In some ways, this book is a compendium of all those other books that take a single product or invention – the colour purple or movable type or cinnamon – and make them the singular focus of history ... If there is a linking narrative to many of these tales it is the understanding that value is always located in rare beauty ... Play is addictive because it offers the potential for a different result each time we engage in it. In this sense it is interesting, or perhaps alarming, to note Johnson’s suggestion that the advances in AI are currently being accelerated by a 'curiosity reward,' which encourages software to explore data containing surprising results and ignore more predictable regions. Game on.
RaveThe GuardianMichael Lewis, with his great gift for humanising complex and abstract ideas, is exactly the storyteller Tversky and Kahneman deserve ... It is rooted, brilliantly, in the biographies of the two men...Lewis presents the pair of academics partly, like all the greatest double acts, as star-crossed lovers – in their formative years, each of them seems, in retrospect, to have been waiting for the other to arrive in order to find out exactly what he was capable of.
RaveThe GuardianHis voice and eye are always curious, never hurried; his sentences unspool elegantly, and are sharply alive to social cadences and cultural nuance. He travels hopefully, looking not always for tragedy or strife but for moments of commonality in extreme and conflicted places ... He tries to approach this cultural immersion from as many vantages as possible, while never quite forgetting his privileged interloper status.
RaveThe GuardianThe cliche goes that at the moment of death all our life passes in front of us. Rarely can a book so effectively have dramatised that idea. Diski wondered towards the end whether art was always a product of pain; she was defiantly unconvinced. Though she shared much of Lessing’s blunt distrust of sentiment, throughout this book she can’t help finding at least as much comfort in her own roles of mother and of grandmother and of wife (to 'The Poet' Ian Patterson) as much as 'writer.' Despite her unvarnished fear of 'dissolution, of casting my particles to the wind,' and at the 'insoluble grief' of not seeing her grandchildren grow up, there is, still, a triumphant note to her fast unspooling history. As the scenes of her traumatic and chaotic childhood pass by she reminds us, sentence by sentence, not only that she emerged to become every bit the writer she always dreamed of being, but also that, despite everything, along the way she learned a great deal about love.
PositiveThe GuardianHitchens was the keenest student of unintended consequences and his writing remains most alive when conveying the ironies of postcolonial history; ironies that had long led him to conclude, in the well-chosen final words of what may be the final collection of his work, that 'internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.'