Sixty-five writers make their selections from around the world
Lea Ypi's Free: Coming of age at the end of history (Allen Lane) is an enthralling account of the end of communism in Albania drawn from her childhood memories, a classic in the making. While pondering the nature of freedom, she deftly alternates horror and hilarity: "expulsion from university" is code for execution in a prison camp; families fight over who owns an empty Coca-Cola can, proudly displayed at home. Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz's The Passenger (Pushkin), recently rediscovered, brilliantly conveys the sense of being trapped as a Jew in Nazi Germany. It is both a terrible warning of what was to come and an incisive description of how easily people slip into conformity with a dominant, dangerous and uncompromising ideology. Among history books, Christoph Baumer's sumptuously illustrated History of the Caucasus: At the crossroads of empires (IB Tauris) unravels the complex early history of a neglected corner of Eurasia.
Among many compelling and original books published in 2021, I select three. Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Fourth Estate), a collection of essays written over fifty years, is an exciting display of her acuity in piercing common hypocrisies and mythmaking with wit and a devastating lightness of touch. John McWhorter's Nine Nasty Words (Avery) takes on language's dynamism, its power to disrupt and offend and, ultimately, its resilience in the face of artificial distortions. Within McWhorter's dazzling analysis of profanity--including racial and religious slurs--he opens what I would call a truly safe space where linguistic shockwaves are parsed with intelligence, courage and humour. Lea Ypi's Free (Allen Lane) is an absorbing memoir of her Albanian childhood and its ideological delusions, sometimes enforced and sometimes evaded by the use of language. The freedom she discovers is far more complex than we might expect.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the Greek revolution, and has seen a clutch of excellent books on the history of Greece. I have particularly enjoyed Mark Mazower's The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the making of modern Europe (Allen Lane) on the revolution itself and Roderick Beaton's proudly (and slightly over-optimistically) entitled The Greeks: A global history (Faber), tracking the story of Greek culture from pre-Homer to now. But anyone interested in the visual side of the revolution--from pistols to paintings of its heroes and heroines, from souvenir ceramics to early photographs - should go straight to 1821 Before and After, Greeks and Greece, Revolution and State. This is the vast (1,200-page) catalogue of a commemorative exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens, exploring the origins of the revolution, the uprising (and its memory), and what happened next. The exhibition is now closed, but the printed version is a galaxy of Greek art over the past couple of centuries, and is refreshingly un-Byronic.
Tharik Hussain was born in Bangladesh and grew up in the racist East End of London. In 2016, shaken by the Islamophobia unleashed in...