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.'