The past year has been the annual equivalent of waking up from a nightmare to a hangover, only to find there’s a citywide shortage of kebabs. (As a newish resident of the US, the latter is — I assure you — a very real problem.) My reading has, then, been rather bleaker and more American this year.
Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a superb study of the corrosive impact of covert finance in US politics. A New Yorker staff writer and investigative journalist, Mayer offers crucial context to the hyper-partisan extremism of contemporary American democracy. Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sellout is a brilliant, pungent satire on race relations. At once hilarious and shocking, the book exemplifies the vitality of satire in a fraught political era. US Army veteran Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is a nuanced depiction of a millennial officer’s experience of combat in the Iraq war. An important historical comment, Youngblood is also a potent literary debut. Finally, Ian McGuire’s whaling novel The North Water, is a tactile evocation of a violent, long-dead era that stares deep into the eyes of evil — something we’re getting used to in the US.
I’ve been in the United States this year, so my reading has a distinctly American ‘flavor’. Assuming the country still exists by the time this goes to print (I write on election eve), here are my picks.
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 3, 1926-1929 (Cambridge University Press) is a superb contribution to a first-rate series, showing Hemingway up close as he becomes a major writer. It was a treat to have our greatest television critic, Clive James, return to his beat with the excellent and enjoyable Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (Yale University Press). Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Scribe) is surely one of the most important political books of the decade, vital for understanding America’s hyper-partisan politics. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – the first American Booker-winner – is currently whizbanging about my head: a stunning satire that leaves no third-rail untouched.