‘A Promised Land’ is the first of two volumes of Barack Obama’s memoirs of his two-term presidency. Published in November last year, this part covers his path to becoming the Democrat candidate in 2008 and then rattles through the main challenges he faced during the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency including the financial crisis, military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, healthcare reform, climate change, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Like many political memoirs, ‘A Promised Land’ is on the wordy side, clocking in at over 700 pages with another volume still to come. Obama is self-aware enough to realise that his verbosity was an issue in his early campaign speeches which focused too much on policy detail and sometimes saw him struggle to connect with voters on a personal level. Thankfully, his writing on the page is engaging even when he is explaining complex policy background, although if you’re more interested in life behind the scenes at the White House, then Becoming by Michelle Obama generally offers more insight on that side of things. Continue reading
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre is an account of the life of Ursula Kuczynski, born to a German Jewish family in 1907 who later became a Communist spy codenamed Sonya. She moved to Shanghai with her architect husband Rudi in 1930 and was recruited by Richard Sorge at the end of that year when she was six months pregnant with her first child. Over the next two decades, she rose to the rank of colonel in the Red Army, lived in Poland, Switzerland and the Cotswolds in England, contributed towards a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was later the handler of the Manhattan Project nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs, passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and influencing the path of the Cold War. Her spy career was so successful that her request to take early retirement was granted – an exceptionally rare honour. Continue reading
I am sure there are many books of various genres currently being written about Britain leaving the European Union right now, but maybe not so many which satirise the complex bureaucracy of the EU itself. However, Robert Menasse’s novel addresses the latter topic, won the German Book Prize in 2017 and has now been translated into English by Jamie Bulloch. Set in Brussels where the headquarters of the main EU institutions are located, the Directorate-General for Culture has been tasked with organising a celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Commission. Martin Susman, the Austrian PA to ambitious Greek Cypriot Fenia Xenopoulou suggests putting Auschwitz survivors at the centre of the jubilee event. Meanwhile, the complexities of European agricultural policy, trade deals and the cost of pork exports to China cause headaches and petty power games galore and Inspector Brunfaut is investigating the death of an unnamed man in the Hotel Atlas. Oh, and a pig is running wild in the streets of Brussels too. Continue reading
With Parliament still in the grip of deadlock over Brexit, a book with the title ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’ might sound particularly timely. However, even Isabel Hardman admits that the provocative title is slightly misleading. Rather than a populist takedown of lazy and self-serving MPs, her examination of the political class is more sympathetic, as she shows that it tends to be the structural flaws in the system which have caused so much political dysfunction in recent years. Continue reading
‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama is already one of the bestselling memoirs of all time selling nearly 10 million copies just four months after it was first published towards the end of 2018. Rebecca, Laura and I optimistically attempted to get tickets for the former First Lady’s sell-out talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre in December along with a mere 44,000 other people. We were, of course, unsuccessful, but I eventually got hold of a library copy of the much talked-about memoir which is split into three parts. “Becoming Me” covers her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago, college years at Princeton and Harvard and early legal career. “Becoming Us” begins with her meeting Barack Obama in the late 1980s through to the 2008 presidential election and “Becoming More” which covers the two terms spent at the White House. Continue reading
Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell makes a convincing case against the widely held perception of the Middle Ages as a bloodthirsty and violent period of history where beliefs about medicine were guided primarily by superstition. Instead, the reality is shown to be very different in Hartnell’s examination of how medieval people experienced their physical selves. Each chapter of this lavishly illustrated book focuses on a different part of the body and explores their cultural significance and how medieval attitudes towards them were shaped by a range of influences.
Drawing on art, medicine, literature, science, politics, history, philosophy and much more, I think Hartnell sometimes tries to tackle too much here. The geographical range of sources spanning across Europe and the Middle East is impressive but the scope is so wide that it is a lot to grasp for non-expert readers, whereas I think those who are more knowledgeable about this period of history may find the analysis too thin in some areas. However, Hartnell’s evident passion for his subject is infectious and I think ‘Medieval Bodies’ could be a possible contender for the next Wellcome Book Prize longlist. Continue reading
It’s almost impossible to avoid hearing about Donald Trump’s latest exploits via rolling news headlines every day, but until now, I hadn’t read any books detailing the whole sorry saga of the Trump administration to date. However, ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ is very much the book of the moment and seeing its author Michael Wolff in conversation with Armando Iannucci (creator of some of the best TV political satires including ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’) at the Friends House near Euston in London on Friday night was simply too good an opportunity to miss. Continue reading
‘Winter’ is the second volume in the seasons cycle of novels by Ali Smith. It is loosely set at a family gathering in which twenty-something Art (Arthur) visits his mother Sophia Cleves in Cornwall over Christmas. Art has recently been dumped by Charlotte and hires a Croatian-Canadian immigrant, Lux, to pretend to be his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Sophia has a frosty relationship with her subversive sister Iris who has a long history of political activism. Continue reading
Political events across the world continue to move at a whirlwind pace, particularly here in the UK. Here are my recommendations for three recent non-fiction books about British politics.
‘The Women Who Shaped Politics’ by Sophy Ridge offers a broad overview of the female campaigners and Members of Parliament who have shifted the political landscape in Westminster. The first half focuses on historical pioneers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and those involved in the suffragette movement while the second half draws on interviews with a range of contemporary female politicians including current Prime Minister Theresa May. Continue reading
It’s easy to see how politics can provide ripe subject material for novelists. From Whitehall to the White House, the settings of these stories are inevitably concerned with power, money, intrigue and risk-taking, all excellent topics for dark humour and high drama. Given that recent political developments in the United Kingdom have become stranger than fiction, it seemed like an appropriate time to read ‘House of Cards’ by Michael Dobbs. Originally published in 1989, the story follows chief whip Francis Urquhart who will stop at nothing to become Prime Minister, getting rid of his potential opponents in any way possible, mostly by orchestrating various scandals for them to fall into. However, tenacious journalist Mattie Storin is getting closer than she realises to uncovering his web of lies and deceit. Continue reading
I really enjoyed reading Alan Johnson’s first memoir This Boy which recounted his childhood growing up in poverty in north Kensington during the 1950s and 1960s. In the second volume, ‘Please, Mister Postman’, Johnson reflects on his early career as a postman while bringing up a young family in Slough. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became more and more involved in trade union activities at work, thus setting him on the path to a long and eventful political career. Continue reading
‘A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West’ by Luke Harding outlines the chilling murder of a Russian dissident which resulted in the rapid deterioration of Moscow’s relationship with the West. Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko fled to London in 2000 with his wife and son after publicly criticising the Kremlin and later worked as a journalist and consultant for MI6. He was poisoned with polonium at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair in November 2006 and the subsequent investigation into his murder has had a significant impact on Anglo-Russian relations over the past decade. Continue reading
‘Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain’ by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman explores the background of the phone hacking scandal which engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News International. It was revealed in 2011 that messages on a mobile phone belonging to murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked by journalists working for the News of the World, a former tabloid newspaper. The organisation initially used a “rogue reporter” defence but further evidence exposed how the practice had been carried out extensively for several years under the watch of several senior editors. This subsequently led to a complex investigation and public inquiry which implicated politicians and the police as much as the press. Continue reading
‘This Boy’ is Alan Johnson’s memoir of his childhood growing up in poverty in North Kensington during the 1950s and early 1960s. His womanising father Steve was mostly absent and his mother Lily struggled to provide a better life for her children whilst suffering from a chronic heart condition. After she died at the age of forty-two when Johnson was thirteen, his sixteen-year-old sister Linda fought for them to stay together in their own council flat despite their young age. Continue reading
‘Hard Choices’ is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s account of the challenges she faced as America’s 67th Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013 during Barack Obama’s first term as President of the United States. Covering major world events including the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the continuing global challenges of climate change and poverty, ‘Hard Choices’ charts Clinton’s first-hand experience of foreign affairs and outlines her approach to diplomacy based on “smart power” using a combination of “hard power” in the form of actions and “soft power” through discussions. Continue reading
After reading two excellent novels in recent months about Soviet spies recruited at Cambridge University – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Red Joan by Jennie Rooney – I was intrigued by Ben Macintyre’s biography of Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five spies recruited by Arnold Deutsch in the mid-1930s. Philby worked for Britain’s secret intelligence service (SIS or MI6) during the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War before his activities as a double agent for the NKVD and KGB were finally uncovered in 1963.
The Ministry of Justice has recently banned prisoners in the UK from receiving books sent by friends and relatives. According to the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, the new restrictions on parcels received by inmates are part of an “incentives and earned privileges” scheme and aims to prevent drugs and other illegal items being smuggled into prisons.
If Don Draper from Mad Men was (a) a real person and (b) still alive in the 21st century having somehow avoided smoking or drinking himself to death, I am sure that he would have a lot to say about ‘No Logo’ by Naomi Klein. Described as “equal parts cultural analysis, political manifesto, mall-rat memoir, and journalistic exposé”, ‘No Logo’ has been one of the most controversial and widely talked-about books of the last decade, tackling the debates surrounding consumerism, branding and the anti-corporate movement. This tenth anniversary edition contains a new foreword which comments on some of the developments that have been made since ‘No Logo’ was first published in 1999. Continue reading
I read an interesting article in The Guardian today in which Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series, claims that libraries ‘have had their day’ and that the concept behind them, namely offering the impoverished access to books, no longer applies in an era of compulsory education. I have a feeling his views are only shared by a tiny minority of people. Continue reading
I know I am preaching to the converted here but I still need to say it: libraries are important.
I have been a member of the library since I was three years old. My nearest local library closed down nearly two years ago despite being the third most used in the borough. It has been replaced by a mobile library service which now visits the town just once a week for an hour and a half on a Friday afternoon. Further cuts are being made to opening hours and the number of trained staff as well as a reduction in the purchase of new books. This situation is being repeated up and down the country. Continue reading