10 Books for 2020


10. Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Macmillan: 2019)
The traditional “logo map” of the United States is far more interesting for what it omits than what it shows. From this principle, Daniel Immerwahr has written this pacy, surprising and often hilarious history of a nation founded to throw off the yoke of imperialism. He eschews well-worn political narratives to focus on geopolitical strategy, economics and trade from the vantage point of America’s lesser-known conquered territories. Chapters contemplate why Pacific Island guano - or bird shit - was such a critical wartime resource, or the importance of standardising nut and bolt sizes to the nation’s “soft power” reach. The vanishing act performed by generations of American leaders to draw attention back to the “logo map” - away from colonial atrocities in the Philippines, birth control experimentation in Puerto Rico, or A-bomb practice in the South Pacific - is remarkable. Today, the nation’s more “pointillist” empire of military bases and supply chains that ring the globe is still under-appreciated and mitigates against the United States’ relative decline. Immerwahr does a vital service to expose the nation’s hypocrisy and, just maybe, force its citizens to reckon with the dishonourable underbelly of American exceptionalism.

9. Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (Metropolitan Books: 2019)
This exploration of the judicial philosophy of Clarence Thomas, the most conservative member of the U.S. Supreme Court - and also its lone African-American - was so compelling that I kept stopping to make frantic notes in the middle of fields during my summer evening walks. American political scientist Robin makes complex legal terminology accessible in his argument that both Black nationalism and right-wing revanchism drive Thomas’ opinions on the bench. Race matters to Thomas, but not in the same way that either liberals or conservatives think it does. Rather, he views racism as intractable: no White offerings of help are to be trusted as altruistic, but a performative reinforcement of elitism. The facade is exposed in such episodes as his Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearings, dominated by sexual misconduct allegations brought against Thomas by staffer Anita Hill. (This was described by Thomas as a ‘high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks’.) Thomas believes, says Robin, that Blacks can defend themselves through arms and economic self-improvement alone - not politics or the courts. He wades through the complexity of Thomas’ jurisprudence to construct a dystopian America of guns, capitalism and racial conflict inhabited - incredibly - by the Supreme Court’s most senior justice.

8. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (Allen Lane: 2019)
A vital yet uncomfortable and, at times, existentially terrifying read. Through inaction, ignorance, wilful distraction and distortion, we have allowed our planet’s temperatures to spiral upwards at a rate, Wallace-Wells describes, that could lead to complete inhabitability by 2100. Slowing this rate of increase, even to a ruinous but liveable 2C above preindustrial levels, remains within our grasp. Wallace-Wells details the ‘elements of chaos’ we face at each level of warming from hunger and wildfire to, for me, the most worrying prospect - systems collapse, where earth unwittingly passes thresholds of warming that trigger negative feedback loops and thus become points of no return. But the second half of the book is devoted to how we can snap out of our inactivity, be it driven by fatalism, denialism or a misplaced faith in the technological saviours of fusion energy or carbon capture. The book winds from history to fiction, science to politics, all underlining the thesis that clearheaded action to decarbonise must be taken now, for our own sakes: ‘You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large’. We can all take measures to change - until Christmas, I’d cut my meat and fish intake by about 85%. Beyond that, education is key for the private citizen: reading books; supporting petitions, demonstrations and boycotts; and refusing to let governments and large corporations off the hook.

7. Iain Dale, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? (HarperCollins: 2020)
This is a refreshingly blunt exposition of the toxic political and media environment in Brexit Britain. Dale targets social media as a primary catalyst of the blinkered environment in which debate is conducted. We are becoming increasingly reckless with our language - a key theme of the book - and incapable of communicating nuance. Our pandemic-imposed bubbles only exacerbate the trend and sharpen Dale’s arguments. He rigorously explores the issues of the day, from crime and immigration, to the NHS, and the B-word; media outlets must modify their presentation of these to invite more constructive debate (and fewer divisive panellists). Semi-autobiographical sections help to humanise Dale as a commentator who lacks easy categorisation: he is gay, socially liberal, fiscally conservative, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and a Brexit supporter. He practices what he preaches; Dale movingly describes how the intimacy of radio allows guests to open up on his LBC phone-ins and build long-term relationships across partisan divides. He also hosted a series of All Talk shows at the Edinburgh Fringe to revive the long-form political interview over soundbites and highfalutin rhetoric. For Dale, what’s crucial to us “all getting along” is not some lofty idealism but renewed focus on our personal conduct. In this hypothesis, he leads by example.

6. Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Random House: 2020)
How we long for the days when this serious, humble, generous and empathetic President inhabited the White House. Barack Obama’s best qualities shine through - not to mention his ability to write beautifully - in this first of two memoirs, covering from his political campaigns in Illinois, through his election as President in 2008, to the successful mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden in May 2011. At 700 pages, Obama’s expansive prose is commensurate with the gravity of the office (albeit, he takes a third of the book to get there). We view every major issue - the stimulus bill, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill - through the eyes of an idealist who, with experience, becomes all too aware of the compromises that top-level politics requires. Yet Obama never loses the inner passion to change lives that fired him as a community organiser on Chicago’s South Side - as the President’s nightly reading of constituents’ letters reminds him. He mulls over his willingness to compromise with an increasingly hostile Republican caucus that, come the Arab Spring, is content to reduce matters of life and death to a partisan game. Intrinsic to this, he reminds us, is the visceral symbolism of a first African American family in the White House; it triggered ‘a sense that the natural order had been disrupted’. In himself, and the figure of his successor, Obama grapples with the promise and the reality of the American experiment, riven by racial inequality. If you normally find political memoirs dull, conceited affairs, this is an exception with rare self-awareness and genuine literary merit (see also, 4).

5. Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin: 2020)
I mean no ill will to Margaret Atwood, but Girl, Woman, Other richly deserved the 2019 Booker Prize on its own. Evaristo’s novel takes the form of 12 beautifully crafted, loosely connected portraits of Black British women, exploring themes of race, feminism, class and sexuality along the way. She grapples with current issues, such as political “wokeness” and transgender rights, alongside enduring feminist debates over beauty (double) standards and the practicability of male-exclusionary spaces, as seen in the story of Dominique, who leaves for America to partner an increasingly controlling radical feminist. The prose is politically and culturally informative without the sense that Evaristo is lecturing. What were, for me, hitherto abstract concepts are organically embodied in the characters. Evaristo moves from the comic to the serious with ease, while the women span from the feisty lesbian playwright Amma to the more conservative schoolteacher Shirley; from high-flying banker Carole to non-binary online activist Morgan. With 12 profiles in total, some characters fade into the background, especially with the lack of a master narrative to bring them together. (And I’m glad I listened to the audiobook because I think the lack of full stops would annoy me.) However, each profile feels so well developed and interesting that this scarcely matters. I should read more fiction like this.

4. Michelle Obama, Becoming (Viking: 2018)
This uplifting memoir embodies the former First Lady’s mantra, ‘When they go low, we go high’. Michelle Obama balances the competing personas and attendant obligations of all-American girl; Black Chicagoan immersed in the politics of the Freedom Struggle (chiefly through her friendship with Jesse Jackson’s daughter, Santita); wife, mother and career professional; and, finally, First Lady of the United States. It is an unexpected journey for a self-confessed control freak, focused on the corporate law track until derailed by her summer intern, and later husband, Barack. With pride, humour, and the more than the occasional hint of exasperation, she details their journey from Friday evening dates in Chicago to the Inaugural podium on Capitol Hill, juggling Malia, Sacha and a vice-presidency at the University of Chicago Medical Centre in between. Her description of losing her father to multiple sclerosis in 1995 - particularly as she narrates the audiobook - is very moving. As First Lady, we see her drive to craft the nebulous office into a force for change, focused on childhood obesity and military spouses - while navigating loneliness and the impossible expectations for a Black woman in the public eye. The concluding chapters are bittersweet: Obama balances the joy she and Malia felt evading White House security to join the crowds cheering the Supreme Court’s legalisation of gay marriage in 2015, against her anger at the Sandy Hook massacre and the way in which Donald Trump’s ‘loud and reckless innuendos’ have not only demeaned her husband but increased the threat to her daughters. Nonetheless, Obama’s is an inspirational story packed with positivity and - one day, perhaps - an archetypal tale of the “American dream”.

3. Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (Granta: 2020) - see full review
Irish journalist Mark O’Connell details a fascinating journey of discovery to mitigate his apocalyptic fears through ‘exposure therapy’. Worn down psychologically by a fear of climate change, and a world inhospitable to future generations, he provides a witty assessment of the extremes of his own obsessions, to understand them as a counterproductive cancer. O’Connell studies internet “preppers” and self-pitying environmental groups; he travels to luxury bunkers, reserved for Silicon Valley magnates when the end arrives, and hotspots for Ruinenlust (German for disaster tourism). Most entertainingly, he destroys the logic behind ludicrously indulgent public-private enterprises, pioneered by Elon Musk et al., to send humans to colonise Mars. I’m compelled by his argument that most of these solutions enable (largely) privileged, American men to escape a feeling of their own impotence in the present, rather than do anything to avert an infernal future for all humankind. O’Connell concludes that individuals, faced with a wall of terrifying and dispiriting information, must focus on what we can control. We should mobilise against both the fatalist mindset that humans are inherently selfish and catastrophe is inevitable, as well as the billionaire’s silver bullet, which might avert your death, but leave you on a cold, dark planet with none of the aspects that actually make life worth living.

2. Helen Lewis, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape: 2020)
A rich, absorbing, and deeply personal history of feminism in Britain and beyond over the past two centuries. Lewis’ thesis echoes that of Caroline Criado Perez in Invisible Women that feminism is fundamentally a fight for independence and control - to give definition to 3.5 billion women without reference back to men. The fights detailed range from the right to good sex and choosing one’s sexual partners to free time; equality of opportunity in work and education; and the highest-profile battles: to divorce, the right to vote and the right to choose. I found Lewis’ chapter on abortion the most harrowing and sensitively written; where states use the spurious rationales of religion or “freedom” to seize sovereignty over a woman’s body, and equate her legal status with that of an unborn foetus, the enduring power of misogyny is most starkly exposed.

Lewis’ writing is witty, accessible and inclusive; in advocating for the “difficult” woman she casts off the societal “tyranny of niceness”: that a woman must juggle home, work, marriage and children, all with a smile on her face. She does not begrudge activists who have - as in any social movement - blanched at the supposed extremes of feminism or espoused the prevailing ideologies of their time. In Simone de Beauvoir’s dictum these women are: ‘half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else’. Lewis’ basic argument is simple and inarguable: ‘Trust women… How far do you expect a woman to have to suffer so that you can decide on her behalf?’

1. Anne Appelbaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends (Allen Lane: 2020)
This short cri de coeur on the state of the Western liberal democratic order is a must-read for anyone concerned about the continued preeminence of the political values and principles we hold dear. Applebaum, a veteran American journalist and historian of Eastern Europe, married to former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, opens on her Millennium’s Eve dinner party to chart how many of her guests - doyens of conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic - might still be invited twenty years on. The answer, as former Soviet republics slide back towards the authoritarianism they threw off in 1989, is alarmingly few. Tired of the false promises and condescension of liberal democracy, Applebaum exposes how New Right regimes in Poland and Hungary have pushed back on meritocratic principles to chart their own, unique national approaches. These regimes thrive on what historian Timothy Synder calls the “medium-sized lie”: conspiracy theories, like the anti-Semitic tropes that surround Hungarian billionaire George Soros, which don’t require constant adherence but provide an alternative reality to take focus away from the actions of a Kaczynski or Orban to dismantle the already precarious democratic state. Applebaum devotes considerable attention, too, to the UK and US, where populism thrives on a ‘cultural despair’ for the decline of the true (white, male, Christian?) nation against the rootlessness of contemporary life. Identifying as part of the American conservative establishment prior to 2008, her criticism of former confidantes - like Trump’s Fox News mouthpiece Laura Ingraham - is particularly pointed.

After the experience of 2020, Applebaum fears that societies will divide increasingly along the “somewhere” versus “anywhere” fault line. The pandemic has lent credence to an escalation in the power of states to close borders and businesses at will, while monitoring citizens with new technologies under the imprecise “public health” rationale. How much illness and death, Applebaum asks, must citizens endure until they become suspicious of the Trumpian nationalist solution? Or will diehard supporters simply be inured to the ‘authoritarian sensibility’? The choice taken will determine whether liberal democracy prevails or, like Soviet communism, becomes a historical footnote.