Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My books of the year

I've read some great new books this year, which have been illuminating and fascinating in equal measure. Here are my top five.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

A fascinating social and political history of late 19th century and early 20th century America, Okrent takes us through the saloon bars of the midwest and the rise of temperance activism in the South, through connections with women's suffrage (which the brewers opposed) and the blackmailing of politicians to support the cause. We all know about the connections with gangsters like Al Capone, but this amazing book takes us through the role of Scottish distillers, Canadian bootleggers, Californian communion wine producers and fake rabbis in ensuring that America was kept fairly wet during the dry years. The cast of characters is wonderful, the account both scholarly and accessible. This US book is available from Amazon UK at £17.32.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

When the king of sanctimonious self-righteousness Julian Assange tells us that his leaks do no harm, he may reflect that if his revelations about Chinese movement on pulling the plug on the ghastly North Korean regime delay its inevitable occurence, he will have plenty of real lives on his hands. Barbara Demick brings the reality of life in the country to vivid life by talking to those who were fortunate enough to get out, usually to South Korea on a circuitous route through China. Their stories of hunger, medicine-free hospitals, unburied bodies in the street, frozen kindergartens and an ever present climate of fear are shocking because they are the tales of ordinary lives, and often of childhood illusions shattered. It is too easy to snigger at the ludicrousness of the North Korean leadership, but this book shows how serious its continued existence is to the lives of millions of people living in the Northern city of Chongin, well away from the relative prosperity of Pyongnang. The book is now in paperback.

The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

There were plenty of political books this year, and I greatly enjoyed Tony Blair's and Jonathan Powell's books. I also liked Steve Richards' account of the Brown years, as told by Ed Balls. But for me the best of them was Peter Mandelson's heavily reflective account of his ups and downs in the party and government. It is well-written and captures the internal struggles not only in the government, but in Mandelson's role in it. It also has a compelling honesty in recounting the major events of his life: I particularly enjoyed his accounts of the Kinnock years and the strange struggles that characterised the true origins of New Labour.

The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt

This is a great companion book to Francis Wheen's highly entertaining life of Karl Marx. Hunt tells the extraordinary story of Marx's patron and ideological foil, Friedrich Engels who took his reluctant embrace of Manchester capitalism to heart as he enjoyed a champagne lifestyle and became a keen hunter. The book is wonderful account of the relationship between Engels and Marx, the European political movements that led to Marxism and the personal traits that would lead their followers to embrace ideological purity as a virtue that would create so many 20th century monsters. Hunt tells the story with considerable panache, but underpinned by substantial original research. Although it was originally published in 2008, the paperback appeared for the first time in 2010.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada's tale of the everyday horror of life in Nazi Berlin is a rediscovered masterpiece. First published just after the war in Germany in 1947, it tells the fictional story of an ordinary couple whose son's death in the war provokes them into petty acts of defiance. These protests cause fury in the police and a determination to find the culprits. Fallada's cast of characters evoke a spirit of defiance, collaboration and compliance in the increasingly paranoid environment of the city, with the pace of a good thriller. The book was out of print for years until its reappearance in 2010 in an excellent translation by Michael Hoffman. Paperback.

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