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Xmas Books: All I Want for Xmas

This article is over 20 years, 5 months old
To celebrate the holiday season, some of our contributors recommend their top reads of the last year.
Issue 280

‘”And make bombs,” I continued. “Show no mercy. We have to terrorise the cops, blow them away. The minute they’re off guard, bullets… And as for the judges, send them mail bombs”.’

Forget Borges, the anarchist writer Roberto Arlt better captures the picaresque ethos and revolutionary desperations of the Buenos Aires proletariat in the early 20th century. His 1926 novel El juguete rabioso (translated as The Mad Toy) narrates the adventures of Silvio Astier, child of the new-immigrant slums who is ‘initiated into the thrilling literature of outlaws and bandits by an old Andalusian cobbler’. Silvio soon emulates his heroes Montbars the Pirate and Wenongo the Mohican by forming a gang of teenage outlaws to pillage and terrorise the bourgeoisie.

Arlt – a left wing journalist by trade – dynamites formal conventions in his delirious use of fantasy, street slang, police reports, and subversive, even gay characters. More adventurous but no less ironic than Brecht, he brilliantly evokes an anarchist underworld which produced such sensational real picaros as Severino di Giovanni, the famous ‘Man in Black’.

After reading Arlt, please consult Osvlado Bayer’s wonderful biography of Severino, Anarchism and Violence – available from your local Andalusian cobbler.

Mike Davis

I love the great modern classics and will joyfully read, for example, anything Julian Barnes cares to write, but the people really shaking up the language are those raised outside this tradition. I felt that first with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and have since then read all his fiction, including this year Fury. Man, has he got America’s number.

Another choice only 603 of your other correspondents will have mentioned is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and its brilliant romp through multicultural London (The Autograph Man looks like being as good). Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You, a terrifying, de profundis Hollywood novel is still with me – so with my bad memory it must be good.

And lefties shouldn’t be ashamed to be seen reading The Nannie Diaries on the tube as it is the best thing about how the US filthy rich behave since Thorstein Veblen’s studies of conspicuous consumption a hundred years ago.

Susan George

Sometimes you read a book and find, unexpectedly, that it has entered your soul. Sometimes you visit a place and find your mind drifting back to it, prompted, unexpectedly, by a smell or something else.

Sicily is, for me, one such place. Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini is a novel which crept up unexpectedly on me.

Set in the dark days of the Mussolini dictatorship, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the narrator travels from his home in northern Italy back to his Sicilian roots to spend three days with his mother. The sights and smells of the island (beginning with the oranges pedlars are selling on the train) creep up on you as the train snakes south towards the Straits of Messina. Elio Vittorini wrote this novel under conditions of fascist censorship. As a result its inner core has a mystical layer round it, but that adds to its beauty.

Yet there is inner steel here. An indictment of the poverty and disease gripping the island. A sense too of repression – not overt, but sinister for all that. And a sense of loss of the poor under fascism and of young men whose lives have been thrown away in the quest for Mussolini’s new Roman Empire.

Two other books which I have enjoyed this year – continuing the Italian theme – are Italo Calvino’s The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, a novel based on the author’s experience with the Partisans during the Second World War, and Peter Robb’s brilliant M, the story of the artist Caravaggio, who was not from Rome but was of Rome.

Chris Bambery

Some novels are explicitly political. Others are not but have social implications. Sunday’s Silence by Gina Nahai is of the latter sort. It combines two cultural scenes which are very distant for English readers, to create an engrossing story. The one deals with the lives and traditions of a woman and her daughter called Blue in Kurdistan, with the twist that they are Jewish Kurds, and what that entails. The other centres on the lives of desperately poor evangelists in the Appalachian mountains in the US, with the focus on snake handlers, in particular their preacher, Little Sam Jenkins, whose faith preserves him from the snakes’ bites – almost. That is, until the intervention of the newly arrived Blue, who is drawn to the snake handlers, and also to the preacher’s son Adam, a foreign journalist come home to investigate his father’s death. Their love complicates matters considerably.

This is a strange and intriguing novel, spanning two extraordinarily different cultures at different ends of the world. Gina Nahai’s prose is beautiful, considerably enhancing the charismatic appeal of the book.

Chanie Rosenberg

What’s sometimes called ‘young adult’ fiction is in great shape at the moment, with writers like David Almond, Chris Wooding, Lian Hearn, Garth Nix and loads of others producing excellent work. This year sees the publication of Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve, which I’m currently in the middle of and enjoying hugely, so I want to recommend it and, even more, the book to which it’s a sequel. It’s a year or two old now, but it’s my choice for this Xmas.

Mortal Engines is my favourite of the current crop of young adult fantasies, which is saying something. It kicks off in brilliant style, with a contender for the best ever opening sentence in a book: ‘It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.’ It’s a superb adventure with an unconventional heroine, which takes some sly and not-so-sly potshots at prevailing idiotic orthodoxies. The whole book, as well as being a classic ripping yarn, is an extended critique of imperialism and especially of the vulgarised notion of Darwinism which misunderstands it as giving licence to act like a predatory shit.

More thoughtful and enjoyable than a great many ‘adult’ novels.

China Miéville

Red Diapers, edited by Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, is a fascinating collection of pieces by people who grew up in Communist and radical families in the US. Some recall the warmth of their extended family of fellow radicals, the summer camps and socials. Others lived in fear during the witch-hunts of being outed as a ‘red’ in school and did everything they could to fit in (one insisted on having a bar mitzvah celebration which his Communist parents refused to attend!)

Red Diapers reveals children’s views of growing up in a political world which they couldn’t always understand. A few are bitter about their experience but many are proud and still moved by memories of the struggles of their parents and are politically committed to this day.

It’s been out a while but In Search of Fatima by Ghada Karmi is also a beautiful book. She tells the story of her family’s exile from Palestine to, ironically, the famously Jewish area of Golders Green in London. She is funny and honest about her life through school, 1960s fashion, marriage, to the political activist she is today, fighting for the rights of Palestinians who didn’t have her chances.

Judith Orr

I was asked to recommend one novel I’ve read over the last year – but I want to ignore this and recommend three! In justification let me say that these novels are all very much of a similar type: magnificent stories, with strong narratives, set against a backdrop of ‘big politics’.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is an engrossing story of one family’s transformation over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. Religion, politics, race, ‘sin and redemption’ are woven through the accounts of family members as they struggle to adjust to life in Africa against the backdrop of the independence of the Congo and the involvement of the CIA and the imperial powers in the death of independence leader Patrice Lumumba.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace spans three generations of a family in Burma, Malaya and India. It’s about love and family life against a background of class, oppression, empire and imperialism. It’s simply magnificent!

Finally, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deals with questions of class and caste in India. The brutality of the police, army and the system in general in their treatment of the poor and dispossessed is described in biting detail. In places it’s quite harrowing, but it also makes you angry about the dehumanising aspects of modern capitalism.

What makes each of these novels compelling is that they describe the resilience of the human spirit to fight for a better, more just and more civilised world despite all the horrors that the world imposes.

Michael Lavalette

Charting the history of the French Revolution from the ancien régime to Napoleon, I couldn’t put down Vive la Revolution. In fact I have picked it up again several more times just to annoy my history teacher. Steel aims to bring the French Revolution to life in a way few teachers do, showing the humour in history. Studying the French Revolution at A-level one could be forgiven for thinking that it all came about because Louis XVI was a bit slow to catch on that the Third Estate was annoyed.

Vive la Revolution captures the excitement of the time, describing protests in terms only a protester could. For example, it compares the king being marched back to the capital wearing a fresh cap of liberty to making Peter Mandelson walk from Hartlepool to London selling copies of Socialist Worker. Steel revels in the ridiculous and anyone on the left could identify with his tales of raucous revolutionaries. However, the history is in there and I learnt more from this book than trying to plough my way through all 947 pages of Simon Schama. It’s such a good read I’d probably lend it to you myself, if it wasn’t being passed round the rest of my history class.

Hannah Küchler

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