With the festive season nigh, Lindsey German recommends some books to get buried into over the holidays
There is no time like Xmas and new year for reading, with a long holiday where it is dark for around 16 hours a day, where the weather is too often bad to venture far, and where you can get your nose in a good book. I always read some novels over Xmas and new year. This year I very much enjoyed Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner (Other Books). It is set in Weimar Berlin just before the rise of Hitler and tells of the blood brothers, often orphaned and institutionalised, who were from the generation of children whose lives were destroyed by the First World War, and who make their living from petty crime. I read it while staying in these same streets in Berlin, where this history is always with you, and it gave me a real insight into what a collapsing society looks like. Another writer of the period, Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin (Scribe) is a recently translated contemporaneous account of life in post-war Berlin.
Tariq Mehmood’s Song of Gulzarina (Daraja Press) is a highly involving novel which looks at the life of Saleem Khan, who migrates from Pakistan to Bradford in the 1960s full of expectation and ends up contemplating suicide bombing in 21st century Manchester. The novel ranges between the north of England, where it follows acutely the different sorts of racism confronting Pakistanis, and Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the effects of war and imperialism are never far away. Mehmood deals with some of the really big questions of our time – race, class, oppression, empire and war – through the eyes of a failed father and lover who nonetheless gains our sympathies. The scenes from Afghanistan during the war with Russia are particularly vivid, and show the Mujadeen and Americans working together; later bombing, this time by Nato, helps to explain the bitter opposition to the west which has led to the growth in terrorism in our century.
Another good insight into imperialism and race comes in A Brief History of Seven Killings (One World) by Marlon James, which tells you about Jamaica in the 1970s, the attempted assassination of the singer Bob Marley, drugs, gangsters and the CIA. It’s told from the standpoint of several characters over a number of years, although never Marley himself, who’s always referred to as ‘the singer’.
Still on war Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (Daunt) is a beautiful story of the prophet Cassandra’s last hours, looking back on the fall of Troy, that endless source for literature. The novel was written in 1983 by the East German novelist, and the story of the prophet destined never to be believed has some contemporary relevance. The wonderful Edna O’Brien, who I first loved at the age of 14, writes of modern Ireland, war crimes in the Balkans and the terrors facing women in The Little Red Chairs (Faber and Faber). A book which I found gripping as a personal chronicle was A God in Ruins (Black Swan) by Kate Atkinson, the story of Teddy Fox, bomber pilot in World War Two – the descriptions of which are quite terrifying – but really about life, different choices and the impact of war on future generations. We always look forward to a new Walter Mosley in our house, with his descriptions of black life in LA through the eyes of his private eye, Easy Rawlins. Charcoal Joe (Weidenfeld and Nicholson) is up to the usual standard.
The hit television version sent me back to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Penguin). There is so much to say about this book – its history and descriptions of warfare, its incredibly detailed and very sympathetic characters, its picture of a society based on serfdom and generations of servitude. But above all it stands out as Tolstoy’s attempt to make sense of a society in the throes of capitalist transformation and which no longer made any sense. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said of Tolstoy he could not show how to get out of that society, but he did paint a vivid picture of why there needed to be a revolution to change it.
That revolution took place around 50 years after he wrote. Its anniversary next year will see lots of revisionist history which claims it was always destined to end in failure. Instead read Trotsky himself on the History of the Russian Revolution (Haymarket). In addition, I would recommend Tamas Krausz whose prize winning book Reconstructing Lenin (Monthly Review) is described as an intellectual biography, and it is exactly that, tracing the development of Lenin’s thought and the way in which especially he grappled with the very difficult circumstances facing Russia after the revolution. Far from any sense of inevitability at the revolution’s failure, it shows that the Russians were racing against time to maintain their revolution until it spread, in the face of famine, civil war, and political opposition. It was a race they lost, and the working class internationally paid a huge price.
I have so many books on London but good new ones keep coming out. Two stand out, both about London’s buildings in different ways. This year I enjoyed Slow Burn City (Picador) by Rowan Moore, the Observer’s architecture critic. It’s about private and public spheres in London, and how public intervention as well as private speculation has helped shape the city. I would also strongly recommend the expensive, bulky but fascinating collection London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-45 (Thames and Hudson) from the Second World War. This is a beautifully produced collection and is a means of seeing exactly what bombing happened in your street and why that estate or (certainly in my locality) small block of council flats near you were built in the 50s and 60s – to fill in the gaps of London terraces destroyed by bombing. More importantly it gives you a sense of the scale of bombing in the battle for London of 1940-41 and then again with the flying bombs of 1944-45, when people went out for lunch from the office and never came back.
It’s been a funny old year for politics, so here are some which helped to throw insights into what is going on. Not the Chilcot Report (Head of Zeus) by Peter Oborne tells us why war remains a central issue in British politics, and Charles Glass’s Syria Burning is an accessible overview of the politics there, and makes some sense of the bloody destruction. Crowd and Party (Verso) by Jodie Dean looks at why we do need organisation, and what form it should take. David Harvey’s The Ways of the World (Profile) provides insights into contemporary capitalism, while Perry Anderson’s classic The New Old World (Verso) is a very good antidote to those who tell us the EU is the best game in town. Alex Nunns’ The Candidate (OR Books) explains the Corbyn phenomenon pretty well.
History is well represented on the left this year with Sheila Rowbotham’s Rebel Crossings (Verso) about men and women socialists and their transatlantic connections; John Rees’s The Leveller Revolution (Verso) about the great movement for democracy in the 17th century; and Kieran Allen’s book Easter 1916 (Pluto). I found this slightly misleadingly titled, since 1916 is its starting point and it covers Irish history and class politics in the subsequent 100 years. But very insightful and a fitting tribute to the women and men who fought for Irish freedom and whose centenary inspired hopefully a new generation.
Finally, if you want to get away from it all completely I recommend Jon Savage’s 1966, (Faber and Faber) about an incredible year in music and politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and how much the two were connected.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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