Memorable books of 2021
Here’s some of the books I read in 2021 that stood out:
Britain Alone - Philip Stephens
Historical account of British foreign policy and geopolitical positioning from Suez to Brexit. Holding ourselves up to the “great power” mirror and seeing a real one reflected in the 40s and early 50s to a quickly diminishing one in the 60s to a former one in the 70s and onwards.
As a historical account kept me hooked. Lots of new detail I didn’t know about Suez, Polaris & Trident, the “Sterling area” and the rollback of Empire.
A large theme (and well trodden elsewhere), is that Britain having not lost the war, sees itself as different and apart from the “lesser countries” of Europe. In the post war period, it still saw itself as one of the “big three” of the US, USSR and Britain/Commonwealth/Empire. Whitehall in the 50s believed the terrible state we found ourselves in post war was merely temporary.
The first half of the book is the slow realisation that it was not temporary, with some fascinating insight into players like Harold Macmillian and the games he played with presidents and parliament. He knew that Britain could no longer act independently from the US and was becoming more economically dependent on the European Community. But post-war British “Great Power” pretensions, from both Labour and Conservative, means we miss out on the first wave of European integration.
Missing that first wave of European integration ends up being crucial to everything that happened next. The UK arrived too late and too poor. The rules of club were set, the direction of travel known. Next up: 40 years of sailing against the wind, demanding opt-outs, rebates.
A self important square peg of an island refusing to bend to the new European destiny that started in Sicily in the 50s, while we were begging the Americans for rockets to shoot nuclear weapons.
Luster - Raven Leilani
Arresting novel about a woman who has a relationship with a married man and becomes part of his family. Big dynamics on race and power. She’s got serious issues which he uses for his benefit, unwittingly or not. His wife is the most interesting character and their friendship is crux of the book.
Side note: made me also think about what a NJ life would have been for Sal and I, had we stayed in New York and moved there. Unrelenting pressure of competitive burbs, living in indentikit, soulless houses in “safe” neighbourhoods. The feeling of guilt if you’re not doing everything all the time compounded if you feel that guilt for your kids. Totally beside the point of the story but nevertheless my personal reaction.
My whiteness and privilege probably means many underlying messages of the book go over my head. Enjoyed it despite that and learned things about being black in America that I had a low level of awareness about but now have a slightly less shallow appreciation of.
The prose is fast! Highly enjoyable to read, reads like a proper new yorker jabbering away at you a million miles per hour. Precise and funny but also sad.
Empire of the sun - JG Ballard
Incredibly moving. Never ready Ballard before so this was an eye opener as the book is quasi autobiographical. It focuses Shanghai before WWII starts in the Pacific. It is under Japanese occupation but the International Quarter is largely respected. The Brits are in control in a very colonial way, with Jim living a life of luxury in amongst a wider Shanghai or total poverty.
This changes suddenly when the Brits and other expats are interned at PoW camp. The story is told through the eyes of Jim, a young frenetic but endearing teenager, who never quite shrugs off childish ideas and questions, much to annoyance of the adults. This keeps him real and hopeful and even idealistic, despite being in a PoW camp.
One of the most interesting threads of the book is how these pompous and over privileged colonial-master type Brits and others find themselves having to live in this new reality where they are reduced to starving, desperate prisoners of war. All the trappings of their life, their power and wealth totally gone.
I think there’s a hugely interesting thread about the seeds of China in the 21st century in this book.
The story of the subjugated local Chinese, who - except for the militias - seem to have to given up on life and resistance and live a pitiful life devoid of any meaning or dignity. No-one, not the Brits or the Japanese value their lives.
There’s a telling line at the end of the book, after the war when Shanghai is back in Allied hands and fully of British and American navy:
However, the heads of the Chinese were already turning to another spectacle. A crowd had gathered below the steps of the Shanghai Club. A group of American and British sailors had emerged through the revolving doors and stood on the top step, arguing with each other and waving drunkenly at the cruiser moored by the Bund. The Chinese watched as they formed a chorus line. Provoked by their curious but silent audience, the sailors began to jeer at the Chinese. At a signal from an older sailor, the men unbuttoned their bell-bottomed trousers and urinated down the steps. Fifty feet below them, the Chinese watched without comment as the arcs of urine formed a foaming stream that ran down to the street. When it reached the pavement the Chinese stepped back, their faces expressionless. Jim glanced at the people around him, the clerks and coolies and peasant women, well aware of what they were thinking. One day China would punish the rest of the world, and take a frightening revenge.
Ballard, J. G.. Empire of the Sun (pp. 278-279). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.