The best books of 2021 | 31left
Politics and current affairs
Empire of Pain. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday; 560 pages; $32.50. Picador; £20
This is the tragic, enraging story of the Sackler family, the previously low-profile owners of Purdue Pharma—which in 1996 introduced the drug OxyContin. The author shows how an epidemic of prescription-opioid abuse morphed into a worse one of illicit heroin and, later, fentanyl.
Do Not Disturb. By Michela Wrong. PublicAffairs; 512 pages; $32. Fourth Estate; £20
A devastating exposé of a remarkable leader, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He won global praise for ending the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 and promoting development. But his regime has ruled through fear, invaded its neighbours and assassinated opponents even after they fled abroad. The author, a former admirer, spent years gathering evidence for this terrifying account.
Invisible China. By Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. University of Chicago Press; 248 pages; $27.50 and £22
The biggest obstacle to China’s development is that rural children—two-thirds of the total—do terribly in school, argues this stunningly researched book. Many are malnourished, lack reading glasses or suffer from energy-sapping intestinal worms. If these basic problems are not fixed, say the authors, China will struggle to reach its goal of broad prosperity.
The Sex Lives of African Women. By Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. Dialogue Books; 304 pages; £18.99. To be published in America by Astra House in March; $28
A Ghanaian feminist and activist relays stories of sexual freedom and relationships. Mostly told pseudonymously, they are touching, joyful, defiant—and honest.
Red Roulette. By Desmond Shum. Scribner; 320 pages; $30 and £20
An extraordinary behind-the-scenes glimpse of the nexus of business and politics in China from a former insider, combining explosive revelations with grubby details of elite life. The well-born are shielded from the worst effects of anti-corruption probes, the author charges: “Red aristocrats got a prison sentence; commoners got a bullet in the head.”
How the Word is Passed. By Clint Smith. Little, Brown; 352 pages; $29. Dialogue Books; £20
By blending journalistic inquiry with historical insights and poetic descriptions, the author turns a complex and traumatic subject—racism and the legacy of slavery in America—into a beautiful, insightful and even enjoyable journey.
We Are Bellingcat. By Eliot Higgins. Bloomsbury Publishing; 221 pages; $28 and £20
How did a bunch of self-taught internet sleuths help solve some of the biggest crimes of recent years, such as the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and the Salisbury poisonings? Bellingcat’s founder chronicles some of the outfit’s investigations, and its efforts to galvanise citizen journalists, expose war crimes and pick apart disinformation. An antidote to cyber-miserabilism.
The Gun, the Ship and the Pen. By Linda Colley. Liveright; 512 pages; $35. Profile Books; £25
A wide-ranging account of the forces that propelled the writing of constitutions—documents that have defined the modern world—from the 18th century until today. The trend was driven by the evolving nature of war and turbocharged by high-speed printing presses. An illuminating and original global history.
Tunnel 29. By Helena Merriman. PublicAffairs; 352 pages; $28. Hodder & Stoughton; £20
Using a narrow, 120-metre tunnel beneath the wall that had recently divided their city, 29 East Berliners escaped to freedom in September 1962. A captivating retelling of one of the most astonishing episodes in East Germany’s grim history.
Cuba: An American History. By Ada Ferrer. Scribner; 576 pages; $32
The idea of putting the United States at the centre of Cuba’s history is not surprising, but this fascinating book shows just how intertwined the two countries have been. America was domineering from the start, but today has a chance to prove itself to be a friend to the island’s progress.
The Greek Revolution. By Mark Mazower. Penguin Press; 608 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30 An elegant and rigorous account of the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule 200 years ago—events, it argues, which helped shape modern Europe. The episode also holds lessons on the galvanising effects of violence, the role of foreign intervention and the design flaws in dreams.
Biography and memoir
Fall. By John Preston. HarperCollins; 352 pages; $28.99. Viking; £18.99
The story of Robert Maxwell, a monstrous, enigmatic, bullying, narcissistic crook of gigantic appetites—who at his peak was one of the world’s most recognisable businessmen—may be largely unknown to anyone under 40. This book tells it with great verve and the benefit of extensive interviews with, among others, Maxwell’s one-time rival Rupert Murdoch.
The Radical Potter. By Tristram Hunt. Metropolitan Books; 352 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25
Josiah Wedgwood wanted to “astonish the world”. He succeeded, says this delightful biography of the 18th-century British potter. To boost productivity, he aimed to make machines of men—and he did.
There is Nothing for You Here. By Fiona Hill. Mariner Books; 432 pages; $30
An account of how the daughter of an English miner rose to become the top adviser on European and Russian affairs in Donald Trump’s National Security Council. She draws perceptive comparisons between the post-industrial blight of her childhood and disadvantaged parts of Russia and America—and between the Kremlin’s evisceration of democracy and the dangers it faces in America.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days. By Rebecca Donner. Little, Brown; 576 pages; $32. Canongate; £16.99
A feat of historical excavation that tells the inspiring story of the author’s great-aunt, Mildred Harnack. A quiet English professor from Wisconsin, Harnack wound up leading one of the most important resistance cells in second-world-war Berlin—before she was betrayed and executed.
The Last King of America. By Andrew Roberts. Viking; 784 pages; $40. Published in Britain as “George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch”; Allen Lane; £35
A stout Tory defence of a much misunderstood king, based heavily on unpublished correspondence. Far from being a crazed tyrant who deservedly lost the American colonies, George, it argues, was an honourable, rule-abiding stickler for protocol, who worked hard to support and even strengthen Britain’s parliamentary democracy and to promote its interests.
All In. By Billie Jean King. Knopf; 496 pages; $30. Viking; £20 True to its title, this autobiography is bracingly candid. The author describes her battles on the tennis court—she won six Wimbledon singles championships and 14 in doubles in one of the 20th century’s great sporting careers—as well as her struggles with sexism and prejudice.
Culture and ideas
God: An Anatomy. By Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Picador; 608 pages; £25. To be published in America by Knopf in January; $35
A theologian presents the Judaeo-Christian God as few will have seen him before. Placing him in the context of other divinities of south-west Asia, she conducts a learned but rollicking journey through every aspect of Yahweh’s body. A book that will offend some but delight many more.
The Sinner and the Saint. By Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press; 432 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25
Like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Pierre-François Lacenaire had literary aspirations, served in the army and gambled rashly. Both flirted with radical politics; both went to prison. Dostoyevsky eventually wrote “Crime and Punishment”—based in part on murders committed by Lacenaire in 1834. This book situates their connection in the stew of mid-19th-century ideology.
Fallen Idols. By Alex von Tunzelmann. Harper; 320 pages; $26.99. Headline; £20
Ranging from George III to Saddam Hussein, India to the Dominican Republic, this account of the fates of controversial statues—variously dumped, destroyed, moved and re-erected—offers insights into the times and places they were put up and taken down. Statues simplify history, the author says; what is really educational are the arguments they provoke.
Barça. By Simon Kuper. Short Books; 352 pages; £20
This look at how modern football megaclubs are run (and misrun), by a columnist for the Financial Times and lifelong fan of Barcelona, may be one of the most forensic books about the football industry ever written. Thoughtful and dramatic.
The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock. By Edward White. W.W. Norton; 400 pages; $28.95 and £22.99
A bracing and original study of the master of suspense. It covers his mistreatment of female stars and admiration of Cary Grant: “an avatar for an inner Hitchcock that could not be outwardly expressed”.
Mother for Dinner. By Shalom Auslander. Riverhead Books; 272 pages; $28. Picador; £16.99
In this laugh-out-loud, gravely serious satire on identity politics, a mother’s deathbed presents a solemn decision: whether or not to eat her. The family are Cannibal-Americans, the most reviled minority in a place where “everyone else was retreating to their cages and calling it freedom”. What, the novel asks uproariously, do individuals owe history?
The Books of Jacob. By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft. Fitzcarraldo Editions; 928 pages; £20. To be published in America by Riverhead Books in February; $35
The tome that secured its author the Nobel prize of 2018 encompasses a “fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects”. At the centre of this epic of faith, ideas and the Enlightenment is a real-life 18th-century mystic.
The Plot. By Jean Hanff Korelitz. Celadon Books; 317 pages; $28. Faber; £8.99
There are too many novels about writers, but this is one to read. A down-on-his-luck author steals a slam-dunk plot from a creepy student. The result is wealth, fame—and spiralling disaster. At once a close-to-the-bone satire on publishing, an inquiry into the ethics of storytelling and a propulsive upmarket thriller.
Great Circle. By Maggie Shipstead. Knopf; 608 pages; $28.95. Doubleday; £16.99
A sweeping saga that alternates between the life of a tenacious female aviator in the 1930s and that of a millennial film star cast to play her in a biopic. In death, “each of us destroys the world,” the author observes—but her engrossing novel is a moving reflection on the will to survive.
Klara and the Sun. By Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf; 320 pages; $28. Faber; £20
The author’s first novel since winning the Nobel prize in 2017 is a coming-of-age drama in which sophisticated androids are bought by wealthy parents as company for their offspring. Alongside the futuristic speculation, this is a satire on aspirational parenting. Questions of faith and mortality mix with storylines involving boy trouble and mother-daughter strife.
The Promise. By Damon Galgut . Europa Editions; 256 pages; $25. Chatto & Windus; £16.99
Four funerals mark the passage of time in this profound tale of an unhappy white South African family coming to terms with apartheid’s end. The Booker-winning novel is also a meditation on a house and inheritance in the tradition of “Brideshead Revisited” and “Howards End”.
Detransition, Baby. By Torrey Peters. One World; 352 pages; $27. Serpent’s Tail; £14.99
Three characters—a trans woman, a cis woman and a man who has recently detransitioned after a short period living as a woman—decide to bring up a child together. What follows is an intense and fraught exploration of identity and what it means to be a woman and a parent, bound up in a moreish, at times hilarious narrative.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. By Wole Soyinka. Pantheon; 464 pages; $28. Bloomsbury Circus; £20
The first work of fiction by the Nobel-prizewinning playwright for 50 years is both a sophisticated thriller and a denunciation of Nigeria’s political class. The narrator is a doctor who finds that a trade in human body parts is being run from his hospital. “Something is broken,” a character laments. “Beyond race. Outside colour or history. Something has cracked.”
Economics and business
The World for Sale. By Javier Blas and Jack Farchy. Oxford University Press; 416 pages; $29.95. Random House Business; £20
The story of how a few commodity-trading firms quietly reconfigured the world economy, making fortunes, juggling embargoes and swaying geopolitics. Unscrupulous operators such as Marc Rich (who spent two decades as a fugitive from American justice) became global power-players as intermediaries between resource-rich autocrats and their customers.
Career and Family. By Claudia Goldin. Princeton University Press; 344 pages; $27.95 and £22
An economist documents the typical life experiences of five generations of American college-educated women as they trade off work and family. Today’s gender pay gap, she argues, is mainly the result of couples making a rational choice over how to maximise household income—by giving precedence to one high-paying career. Provocative and compelling.
The Future of Money. By Eswar Prasad. Belknap Press; 496 pages; $35 and £28.95
The digitalisation of finance has huge implications—and as it loses physical form, money’s meaning will become ever-harder to grasp. This nuanced book explores the effects of the upheaval.
The Power of Creative Destruction. By Philippe Aghion, Céline Antonin and Simon Bunel. Translated by Jodie Cohen-Tanugi. Belknap Press; 400 pages; $35 and £28.95
An application of Joseph Schumpeter’s most powerful idea—which prizes innovation as the driver of progress—to contemporary debates in economics. The result is sweeping, authoritative and, for the times, strikingly upbeat.
The Story of Work. By Jan Lucassen. Yale University Press; 544 pages; $30 and £25
Beginning in the hunting-and-gathering past, this long view of work shows how little has changed over millennia. Progressing through the rise of cities, wages and markets for labour, it traces a perennial cycle of injustice and resistance—and the age-old desire for more.
The Key Man. By Simon Clark and Will Louch. Harper Business; 352 pages; $29.99. Penguin Business; £20
As head of the Abraaj Group, a private-equity firm that preached profit with purpose, Arif Naqvi became an investors’ darling—then came unstuck. The gripping tale of the alleged perpetrator of one of the largest corporate frauds in history.
Science and technology
A Shot to Save the World. By Gregory Zuckerman. Portfolio; 384 pages; $30. Penguin Business; £20
A journalist at the Wall Street Journal tells the story of the great vaccine race of 2020. A superb scientific drama of failure, determination and triumph.
I, Warbot. By Kenneth Payne. Oxford University Press; 336 pages; $29.95. Hurst; £20
A thought-provoking reflection on how artificial intelligence will change conflict. The offence will dominate, the author says. Martial virtues such as courage and leadership will yield to technical ones.
Being You. By Anil Seth. Dutton Books; 352 pages; $28. Faber; £20
Understanding consciousness is a “hard problem”, noted the philosopher David Chalmers. Here a pioneering neuroscientist takes readers to the edge of what is known, how scientists know it, and, most importantly, how that knowledge could be made useful in medicine and psychology.
The Genetic Lottery. By Kathryn Paige Harden. Princeton University Press; 312 pages; $29.95 and £25
Genes matter, says this study of their relationship with life chances. But people are no more responsible for them than for the circumstances of their birth. So the state should ameliorate genetic inequalities as much as those of upbringing. A clear case on a complex subject.
Water: A Biography. By Giulio Boccaletti. Pantheon; 400 pages; $30 and £22.50
Water moves and, until about 10,000 years ago, people moved with it—following the green flush of rainy-season growth and grazing herds. Then came agriculture, irrigation, ever-expanding settlements—and a need for rules and institutions to manage water resources. Humankind’s intensely political relationship with water is the undergirding of civilisation, argues this rich and engaging history. ■
The best books of 2020
The best books of 2019