Politics and current affairs
China’s Future. By David Shambaugh. Polity; 195 pages; $19.95 and £14.99
No country has modernised its economy without also becoming a democracy. A respected American political scientist asks whether China can break the mould.
Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism. By Charles Clover. Yale University Press; 360 pages; $35 and £25
A veteran Financial Times correspondent analyses what really motivates the regime in Moscow by tracing the rise of Eurasianism: the belief (crudely put) that Russia’s national identity is determined by ethnicity, geography and destiny.
The Euro and the Battle of Ideas. By Markus Brunnermeier, Harold James and Jean-Pierre Landau. Princeton University Press; 440 pages; $35 and £24.95
Three authors focus on France and Germany to tease out the clashing economic ideas that make up the euro project. The Germans like rules and discipline, and fret about excessive debt and the moral hazard created by bail-outs. The French prefer flexibility and discretion, and worry about the lack of a mutualised debt instrument. German policymakers are often lawyers, French ones more frequently economists. Not a happy marriage.
CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. By Kerry Brown. I.B. Tauris; 288 pages; $28 and £20
What sort of leader is Xi Jinping? There are few political questions to which the answer will have greater bearing on people as this. By an expert British China-watcher.
China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. By Minxin Pei. Harvard University Press; 365 pages; $35 and £25.95
How decentralising the rights of control over state property, without clarifying the rules of ownership, offered those who rule China the greatest chance in history to grow rich, by a professor of government now based in California.
The Egyptians: A Radical Story. By Jack Shenker. Allen Lane; 528 pages; £15.99
A refreshing account, by a young reporter on the Guardian, of the movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. What distinguishes his writing from others’ is his presence in the slums, factories and homes where Egyptians first began questioning their relations with their rulers. Mr Shenker evokes despair at the economy of this badly run country, but also surprising hope for its future, thanks to a young generation that says it is “no longer prepared to put up with the old crap”.
Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan. By Isabel Buchanan. Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; £16.99
Two young lawyers, one Pakistani and one British (the author), launch themselves into the dark world of Pakistan’s death row, where 8,000 people await execution. A remarkable first book written with verve and an eye for telling detail.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. By J.D. Vance. Harper; 264 pages; $27.99. William Collins; £14.99
Why so many people want to believe that Donald Trump will bring back manufacturing jobs and keep immigrants out. Possibly the most important recent book about America.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. By Sonny Liew. Pantheon; 320 pages; $30 and £25
A brilliantly inventive graphic novel, which took several years to complete, weighs up the costs and benefits of life in the small, authoritarian, model city-state that Lee Kwan Yew founded half a century ago. By a Malaysian-born comic artist and illustrator, now based in Singapore.
The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine. By Ben Ehrenreich. Penguin Press; 428 pages; $28. Granta; £14.99
An elegant and moving account of the trials of one family, a tale that is symbolic of the daily lives of many Palestinians.
Biography and memoir
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between. By Hisham Matar. Random House; 256 pages; $26. Viking; £14.99
A beautifully written memoir that deals with the nature of family, the emotions of exile and the ties that link the present with the past—in particular, the son with his father, Jaballa Matar, who disappeared in a notorious Libyan prison.
Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. By John Guy. Viking; 490 pages; $35 and £25
Most historians focus on the early decades, with Elizabeth’s last years acting as a postscript to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. An Australian-born historian, now a fellow at Cambridge, argues that this period is crucial to understanding a more human side of the smart redhead.
Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India. By Vinay Sitapati. Penguin India; 391 pages; 699 rupees
The real father of India’s economic reforms deserves a place alongside Nehru as India’s most important prime minister. Instead he was cast into ignominy and obscurity. An important book, by a young doctoral student at Princeton, that deserves wider circulation.
When Breath Becomes Air. By Paul Kalanithi. Random House; 238 pages; $25. Bodley Head; £12.99
A young neurosurgeon, dying of cancer, examines his life, especially the gift of language, the parts of the brain that control it and its centrality to what makes us human. A powerful and compelling read.
Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. By Gareth Stedman Jones. Belknap; 768 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £35
A British historian re-evaluates Marx in the 21st century. There is no better guide than this professor of the history of ideas at the University of London.
Negroland: A Memoir. By Margo Jefferson. Vintage; 248 pages; $16. Granta; £12.99
Growing up an African-American of privilege and wealth might seem cushy. But this penetrating memoir shows how those who were spared the brutality of southern segregation nevertheless had to learn to navigate a much subtler set of tacit rules and assumptions: excel, but don’t show off; be comfortable anywhere, but be aware that prejudice can rear its ugly head at any moment.
Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation”. By James Stourton. Knopf; 478 pages; $35. William Collins; £30
At once cold and grand, Kenneth Clark would be easy to mock. A carefully researched and thoughtful biography of a conflicted and curiously unknowable man who became the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century, by a former chairman of Sotheby’s.
Born to Run. By Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster; 528 pages; $32.50 and £20
The timely autobiography of the bard of American deindustrialisation, whose songs recognise and honour blue-collar woes. His stories have never aged; years after they were written they remain a lesson in empathy for the white-collar fans he has always attracted.
But You Did Not Come Back. By Marceline Loridan-Ivens. Translated by Sandra Smith. Atlantic Monthly Press; 112 pages; $22. Faber; £12.99
In 1944, when she was 15, the author and her father were captured and deported; he to Auschwitz, she to Birkenau. She returned; he never did. It took her 70 years to write her story. In tight, unsparing prose, she confronts the delusions her father held, and the lies she told herself. A small book with a big voice.
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe. A Biography. By Elaine Showalter. Simon & Schuster; 243 pages; $28
A delightful life, by a spirited academic, of a 19th-century American woman who wrote poetry, plays and books, became a tireless speaker for feminist causes, notably women’s right to vote. Her life intersected with Longfellow, the Brownings, Louisa May Alcott and Henry James. But she is best known for writing the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman. By Minoo Dinshaw. Allen Lane; 767 pages; £30
By the time he died, in 2000 at the age of 97, Sir Steven Runciman had become convinced that he was a relic of a past age and the embodiment of a nearly mythical era. A lively life of a colourful British historian who was best known for his work on the Crusades, by a promising young author. A debut to be proud of.
The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China. By Philip Ball. Bodley Head; 316 pages; £25. To be published in America by University of Chicago Press in March 2017
How two great rivers—the Yellow river and the Yangzi—shaped China’s history. By a British science writer who for 20 years was an editor at Nature.
The Romanovs: 1613-1918. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf; 784 pages; $35. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £25
A cruel history of hereditary power, by a master storyteller who lifts this unfamiliar narrative with vivid, amusing and surprising details.
The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914. By Richard Evans. Viking; 928 pages; $40. Allen Lane; £35
A distinguished scholar of Germany tots up the winners and losers in the century after the Battle of Waterloo, which could rightly be described as the first age of globalisation.
Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. By Peter Wilson. Belknap; 941 pages; $39.95. Allen Lane; £35
The Holy Roman Empire, on paper, looked more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a blueprint for modern Europe—and yet it worked well, nonetheless. A masterly retelling, by an Oxford historian.
Lenin on the Train. By Catherine Merridale. Allen Lane; 353 pages; £25. To be published in America by Metropolitan in March 2017
How Vladimir Lenin’s railway journey from Switzerland to Russia led to the revolution and changed his country—and the world—for ever. An insightful and sympathetic account, by one of the foremost historians of Russia.
East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. By Philippe Sands. Knopf; 448 pages; $32.50 Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £20
A distinguished Franco-British advocate traces how a single important word entered the legal canon, while examining the lives of those who brought it into being and the wartime experiences of his own Jewish relatives in Europe. An un-put-downable winner of the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction.
Economics and business
The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War. By Robert Gordon. Princeton University Press; 762 pages; $39.95 and £29.95
Why economic growth soared in America in the early 20th century, and why it won’t be soaring again any time soon, by an outspoken economist who teaches at Northwestern University.
Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation. By Branko Milanovic. Belknap; 299 pages; $29.95. Harvard University Press; £23.95
Surprisingly little is known about what causes inequality. An economist at the Luxembourg Income Study Centre and the City University of New York proposes a bold and interesting new theory.
The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization. By Richard Baldwin. Belknap; 329 pages; $29.95 and £22.95
Globalisation has changed fundamentally since the internet revolution in the 1990s. Whereas 20th-century trade involved competition between countries, 21st-century trade is fuzzier, with supply chains crossing borders. An American academic, working in Geneva, argues that, while it might be difficult to help the losers, reversing the trend is even harder.
The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan.* By Sebastian Mallaby. Penguin Press; 781 pages; $40. Bloomsbury; £25
Once a hero, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve is now being called a villain. Sebastian Mallaby, who used to write for The Economist and is married to our editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, examines whether Alan Greenspan was to blame for the financial crisis. Winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award 2016.
Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. By Duncan Clark. Ecco; 287 pages; $27.99 and £18.99
An intriguing insider’s account of how Jack Ma conquered China’s internet, by an early adviser to the company
Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story. By John Bloom. Atlantic Monthly Press; 537 pages; $27.50. Grove Press; £16.99
The exhaustive (and exhausting) tale of the Iridium communications project and how it was brought back from the dead.
Culture, society and travel
Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers. By Lucy Crehan. Unbound; 304 pages; £16.99
Too much writing about education is polemical and ill-informed. Lucy Crehan’s book is refreshingly fair-minded and makes a case that there is a lot to learn about how other countries learn.
Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. By Timothy Garton Ash. Yale University Press; 491 pages; $30. Atlantic; £20
How urbanisation and the spread of the internet has increased the possibilities of freedom of expression, but also the consequences that stem from it. A distillation of a lifetime’s research and writing, by the Oxford academic who also created freespeechdebate.com.
Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. By Gary Younge. Nation Books; 267 pages; $25.99. Guardian Faber; £16.99
The stories of ten young people who were shot and killed on the arbitrarily selected date of Saturday November 23rd 2013. A “long, doleful, piercing cry”, by a journalist on the Guardian, in a country so overwhelmed by gun violence that it has almost given up trying to stop it.
The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives. By Helen Pearson. Soft Skull; 256 pages; $17.95 Penguin; £9.99
How a random, nationwide sample of people linked only by their birth in 1946 has been followed by researchers and data-gatherers, and helped shape public policy across the country. A jewel in the crown of British social science.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. By Christopher de Hamel. Allen Lane; 632 pages; £30
The politics and meaning of medieval manuscripts. A delightful and surprising book, by the man who has examined more manuscripts than anyone before him.
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. By Johan Norberg. Oneworld; 246 pages; $24.99 and £16.99
A Swedish economic historian studies the many, and often surprising, ways in which human life has improved.
The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young. By Somini Sengupta. Norton; 244 pages; $26.95 and £18.99
How India’s youth are trading fatalism and karma for free will and higher expectations, by a former New York Times New Delhi bureau chief who interweaves data, first-hand accounts and archival research to great effect.
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. By Ben Rawlence. Picador; 384 pages; $26. Portobello; £14.99
A chronicle of life in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, which was supposed to close in November, but hasn’t because its inhabitants have nowhere to go.
Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets. By Edward Dusinberre. University of Chicago Press; 232 pages; $30. Faber & Faber; £18.99
The lead violinist of the Takacs Quartet recounts its members’ musical lives, interweaving into the group’s autobiography the story of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets, which are now regarded as the apogee of the chamber-music repertoire.
How to Listen to Jazz. By Ted Gioia. Basic Books; 272 pages; $24.99 and £16.99
Why jazz is unique, and how to distinguish good jazz from bad. No author could have done a better job.
The Vegetarian. By Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith. Hogarth; 192 pages; $21. Portobello; £8.99
This slim novella from South Korea is one of the most erotic literary novels of the season. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International prize.
War and Turpentine. By Stefan Hertmans. Translated by David McKay. Pantheon; 304 pages; $26.95. Harvill Secker; £16.99
A lovingly reimagined life of an ordinary man whose life was for ever marked by the first world war. Fine prose from a Flemish-Belgian poet and essayist.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. By Lionel Shriver. Harper; 400 pages; $27.99. Borough Press; £16.99
A hilarious, and often brutal, tale of how one family fares when America’s economy collapses. In God they trusted. By the irrepressible author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.
Swing Time. By Zadie Smith. Penguin Press; 453 pages; $27. Hamish Hamilton; £18.99
A powerful story of lives marred by secrets, unfulfilled potential and the unjustness of the world. This may well be Zadie Smith’s finest novel.
Science and technology
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. By Ed Yong. Ecco; 368 pages; $27.99. Bodley Head; £20
A science writer and blogger turns an enthusiastic naturalist’s eye on the bacteria, viruses and other minuscule organisms that cohabit the bodies of humans and other animals. Get to know some little-known villains—and many heroes.
The Gene: An Intimate History. By Siddhartha Mukherjee. Scribner; 592 pages; $32. Bodley Head; £25
The world is wholly unprepared for the birth of the first human with a genome that has been permanently modified in a lab. By a Pulitzer-winning writer and physician.
Patient HM: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. By Luke Dittrich. Random House; 440 pages; $28. Chatto & Windus; £18.99
Patient HM became famous in the history of science when a surgeon treated his epilepsy by removing the medial temporal lobes in his brain, causing him to lose most of his memory. A remarkable examination of how neuroscience works, by the surgeon’s grandson.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body. By Jo Marchant. Crown; 320 pages; $26. Canongate; £16.99
A thought-provoking exploration of how the mind affects the body and can be harnessed to help treat physical illness, by an award-winning science journalist.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. By Dava Sobel. Viking; 336 pages; $30. To be published in Britain by Fourth Estate in January 2017
The hidden history of the remarkable women whose contribution to astronomy changed our understanding of the stars and man’s place in the universe, by the prize-winning author of “Longitude” and “Galileo’s Daughter”.
*Our policy is to identify the reviewer of any book by or about someone closely connected with The Economist. Sebastian Mallaby is married to Zanny Minton Beddoes, our editor-in-chief. The review of his book in these pages (“Man in the Dock”, Oct 1st) was written by Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times. It was edited for length only.
Correction (December 9th): A previous version of this piece misspelled the name of Singapore’s founder. This has been updated.
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For the second year, Royal/Dutch Shell and The Economist together ran an essay competition to encourage thinking and debate about the future, this time in the broad field of transport and travel. The competition was entitled “Going faster—but where?” The judging panel chose eight prizewinners. The first prize of $20,000 was won by Mari Rhydwen. Here is her essay, which is in eloquent praise of the merits of travelling slowly
I had just stopped for a coffee in the Kenyan village where I had walked to do my shopping when I read an advertisement: “Write an essay on how fast we're all travelling these days. No rambling please.” Having spent the last two years sailing around the Indian Ocean at a walking pace I was itching to respond: to challenge the assumption that we are all travelling fast, and the implication that rambling, literally or literarily, is undesirable. But I needed to find out more about the competition and this was problematic. “I suppose,” I say to my husband as we stroll the couple of miles back to our yacht, “it simply didn't occur to them that we wouldn't be able to access the web.” We meander back past the markets where I stop at a stall to try on a cotton frock, past the mud huts and the shambas, past the bunch of cheery children who like to practise their English and shake hands and past the men cutting the roadside grass by hand to feed the cattle. We talk about how we can get to an internet café. It will take a day.
Sailing to Africa from Western Australia has taken two years but we have met many other cruising people who had spent ten years travelling this far. They did nothing to disguise the fact that they thought we were rushing, impatient, still infected by the hyperactivity we had deliberately tried to leave ashore. This has little to do with speed at sea, but with the amount of time spent puddling along coastlines, lingering at anchor and pondering the sky, as well as days engaged in hauling well-water or walking to market. For many people cruising has become a permanent lifestyle, financed by portable or casual work, or by retirement pensions. A rare minority have taken time off work, rented out the house, and intend to resume their former lives within an allotted timespan. Some of us have loosened our grip on the illusion of security and given up homes and jobs to travel the oceans for a while and just see what happens. It is not a way of getting anywhere. It is a way of being wherever you are. Indeed it is a form of rambling and seems to belong to a whole genre of contemporary sins including loitering, idling and wandering vaguely, that conspicuously fail to get the point or get things done. Practitioners of such unambitious, goal-disoriented lives are prone to being labelled losers. Curiously though, if done blatantly and wholeheartedly in a little yacht, people express interest, even envy, rather than scorn.
Increasingly, sailing takes you only to places that can also be reached faster and more comfortably by people who are in more of a hurry to find tranquillity. Since anchoring in commercial ports or near big towns can be unsafe, sheltered bays on remote islands are particularly attractive but it is here that one most often stumbles upon exclusive resorts where guests are delivered from the nearest airport by private planes or motor yachts. At one, famously expensive, we dressed up and went ashore for a reconnoitring coffee, curious to know what you got for two thousand dollars a day. We found: bamboo-shingled roofs; open-sided buildings furnished with timber, cane and cream linen; coral-rubble paths; tasteful touches of local art; good looking young staff in sarong-meets-Paris uniforms and iconic views of white sand and palm trees. It was the ubiquitous low-key casual tropical paradise elegance we observed in posh hotels throughout the Indian Ocean. But would you know if you were staying on Moyo Island or Ari Atoll? Would it matter?
Chagos is the ultimate exclusive retreat, to which no one can buy a ticket. Part of British Indian Ocean Territory, it lies mid-ocean, out of the path of cyclones, and is thus strategically significant to the cruising sailor as well as the military sort. Private vessels are permitted to stop for a limited time at some of the atolls and we stayed six weeks waiting for the change of monsoon. Here are picture-book coral atolls where people live out shipwrecked-on-a-tropical-island fantasies, or reality in the case of the couple aboard the sailing yacht Vespara which ran aground there a few years ago. It is probably unique in being a group of habitable but uninhabited islands, a consequence of the relocation of the population at the time of British annexation. I was there reluctantly, already jaded with Eden-like beaches, but swimming daily with baby manta rays, snorkelling through reef undamaged by bleaching or dynamite, and being a thousand kilometres from a shop, restaurant, hairdresser or bank, has some charm. Nonetheless these idyllic uninhabited islands are chimerical, created and maintained through territorial haggling and dispute.
The nearest destination to Chagos to which one may purchase a ticket is the Maldives. Although tourist-processing is a major industry, visitors are kept as separate from local people as possible. There are about two hundred inhabited islands and over eighty resort islands. Private yachts, like backpackers, are not made welcome and are permitted to stop only at Male or at some resort islands. Anchoring off what are termed “inhabited islands”, those with a local population, is forbidden. Ironically, we spent thousands of dollars there on essential repairs. Indeed yachtspeople visiting remote places often spend far more than the average package tourist, doing long-term provisioning at local shops and markets, buying hardware and fuel. Like backpackers, they spend their money at local businesses and not at multinational hotel chains.
The Maldives accepts tourists' dollars, but wants their bodies kept at a safe distance. That tropical island paradise was this traveller's dystopia. Is the point of travel to be cocooned in a fantasy theme-park version of a native village well away from the real thing? The segregation is the result both of the local people's fear of being swamped by an alien culture and the tourists' desire to be able to enjoy the pleasures of an idyllic tropical island, unconstrained by any concerns about offending others' sensibilities. It is an efficient way of managing tourism but I do not travel to be sequestered in a tourist ghetto. If I wanted an uninhabited island, I would sail back to Chagos.
A delightful aspect of travelling slowly is having time to hang around in places and meet people, travelling by foot or on local public transport and going to hotels and cafes that local people can afford to patronise. Making connections, sharing breakfast at the top of a volcano with a shockingly impoverished university professor and his family on the island of Flores, collecting eggs and a chicken-filled snake on a Malaysian engineer's hobby farm and attending a time-warped meeting of the East African Women's League in Kenya – these are the highlights but they cannot be bought and cannot be rushed and cannot be organised. Travel must be slow enough to allow such accidents to happen.
But slow travel is trivialised when reduced to a collection of amusing anecdotes and feelgood experiences. It has mainly been about learning again and again and again that most people are poor, a very few people are exceedingly rich and doing nicely, corruption is normal, clean water is precious and good people everywhere are doing what they can. Tourists are generally shielded from the grosser evidence of this: airport officials do not hassle for baksheesh and even cheap hotels have running water where few of the population do. Entering a country by boat, it is first necessary to deal with customs, immigration, port and health authorities, a host of bureaucracies. These first delicate encounters with officialdom have proved a remarkably accurate barometer when compared with the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International, a Berlin-based pressure group.
Fast travel enables increasing numbers of people to visit more exotic and remote places but as tourism becomes a significant factor in struggling economies, more and more incredibly fancy resorts are being built in places with the poorest populations and most intractable socio-political problems. Instead of bringing people closer and facilitating mutual understanding and awareness of global issues, it is dividing the world more sharply in two, the rich and the poor. Naturally most tourists on their two-week holiday do not want to be confronted by poverty and disease or reminded that the soup they just ordered costs twice the waiter's daily wage. The waiter, here in Kenya's shrivelling economy, may count himself lucky to earn a daily wage. Everywhere I find myself looking for ways to counteract the intensifying polarisation of wealth and the devastation so evidently caused by rampaging greed. I yearn to ask the rapacious, “What is it you really want so badly? Respect? Happiness? Immortality? Don't you know they are not for sale?”
Each night at sea I do the midnight to six o'clock watch. Since having a light on kills night vision I do little except monitor our position regularly, trim the sails and perhaps learn to recognise another constellation or rehearse some little phrases of Bahasa Indonesia, Kiswahili or whatever, ready for landfall. Otherwise it's like being a cat: eyes half-closed but ears twitching. Each morning the miracle of sunrise, the colour comes back into the world, blueness to the sky first, then a little yellow in the east and the vivid redness of the safety-harness strap that ties me to the earth. After that it will be half an hour till the sun gets over the horizon and there is time for a cup of tea while I watch any hitchhiking boobies or terns take off, always flying away after the colours arrive but before the sunshine. Sometimes I am so glad of the company of other living beings through the long night, I even thank them for coming. Travelling fast, but where are you going? Travelling slowly, always at home.