By Emmanuel Carrere. Jonathan Cape
Carrere meant to write an “upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” but a breakdown made him cede to “stormier terrain”. Carrere’s flinty-eyed self-exposure can thrillingly lead anywhere, and his digressive, incisive thinking delights. Despite the chaos (or maybe because of it), the book is instructive about meditation.
The Life Inside
By Andy West. Picador
Andy West’s father, brother and uncle served time, making him uniquely qualified for his job of teaching philosophy in prisons. This book is candid about West’s family dynamics. The prisoners’ lessons are depicted with poignancy. While studying The Odyssey, one inmate quips: “The Sirens are crack.”
The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age
By Anand Giridharadas. Allen Lane
In an age of hawkish internet shaming, Giridharadas profiles progressive activists striking the balance between “calling in” and “calling out”. They prove how senseless it is to lambast ideological opponents, especially when they’re actually good-hearted and persuadable. Reassuringly sane, Giridharadas shows people are often less hardline and more conflicted than they seem.
Profiles In Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber
By Andy Borowitz. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
Less admirable political figures are in Borrowitz’s crosshairs in this splenetically hilarious read. He divides his chronicle of stupidity’s ascent into three epochs: Ridicule – during this stage, ignorance could tank a political career, so dumb politicians feigned intelligence; Acceptance – ignorance meant you were unpretentious and approachable; Celebration – ignorance is “preferable to knowledge’.
The Premonitions Bureau
By Sam Knight. Faber & Faber
After the Aberfan disaster, it came to light that people had dreams predicting it, prompting psychiatrist John Barker to open the titular bureau. He receives many submissions predicting cataclysms, some bogus, some hard to explain away. This haunting, stylishly written book keeps a neutral distance, letting you make up your own mind about precognition.
The Believer: Encounters with Love, Death & Faith
By Sarah Krasnostein. Text Publishing Company
This book comprises six stories of people who fervently believe in aberrant ideas: strict creationists, ghostbusting detectives, a Buddhist guiding the terminally ill through the death process, and a woman who is sanguine about being excessively punished for a crime. Perceptive and compassionate, Krasnostein keeps dynamically cutting back and forth between these stories.
Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy
By Erich Schwartzel. Penguin Press
This flabbergasting history of Hollywood’s kowtowing to China exposes an underreported reality: to access China’s vast market, Hollywood lets China censor its movies. Gay scenes from Bohemian Rhapsody were axed, making it merely about a sad, straight icon. More outrageous still, Hollywood nixes scripts that will displease China, meaning China’s arbitrary decrees are catching.
Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life
By Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. Chatto & Windus
With their male counterparts consumed by the second World War, philosophers Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot challenged the predominant logical positivism. Instead, they embraced a philosophy that honoured “the vast reality that transcends us.” The book argues it’s no accident that this life-affirming philosophy came from women in the swim of life.
The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology
By Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel. PublicAffairs
Our newfound ability to rewrite genetic code presents many moral dilemmas. Would you edit your future children? Would you eat GMOs to reduce climate change? What about engineering a virus to protect against the next Covid 19? An urgency propels this book: pondering these inevitable quandaries now will prepare us.
Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy
By David J Chalmers. Allen Lane
Chalmers posits that virtual reality will not only be commonplace, but it’ll be as valid as our genuine reality. We’ll interact with virtual objects, which will replace screen-based computing. We’ll spend much of our lives in virtual environments – come the next pandemic, we might be hanging out in simulated worlds, not on Zoom.
Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
By Katherine Rundell. Faber & Faber
Rundell’s incredibly lively book about the poet who saw body and soul as inextricably enmeshed is “both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism”. Taking artistic liberties to fill in the blanks, Rundell is as playfully daring as her subject, perhaps because she’s also a children’s author
The Irish Difference: A Tumultuous History of Ireland’s Breakup With Britain
By Fergal Tobin. Atlantic Books
This elegantly written history delineates how Ireland never acquiesced to English rule in the way other countries did. Tobin cites the durability of Catholicism throughout the eras as a clinching factor, while never glossing over other complexities. Many drolleries help the tangled history go down smoothly.
Liberalism And Its Discontents
By Francis Fukuyama. Profile Books
Fukuyama has been criticised for stating liberal democracy was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” – he’s since claimed this was aspirational, rather than a statement of fact. This cogent, slim book bemoaning liberalism’s decline blames populist demagogues and progressives’ wrongheaded obsession with groups. A clarion call to restore waning liberal values.
Butler to the World: How Britain Became The Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals
By Oliver Bullough. Profile Books
Having organised “Kleptocrat tours” of London, Bullough in this book exposes Britain for being distinctly culpable in its indulgence of oligarchs, aiding them in money laundering. The “Butler” analogy proves most apposite: Britain projects quintessentially British traits – “manners, resourcefulness, reserve” – but to nefariously servile ends.
My Fourth Time, We Drowned
By Sally Hayden. Fourth Estate
Hayden, a freelance reporter, received a message from an Eritrean who, in fleeing Eritrea’s dictatorship, was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard (funded by the EU) and locked in an inhumane detention centre. Hayden soon finds this is the fate of thousands of refugees. Using first-hand testimony, this reportage is a hauntingly evocative wake-up call.
The Story of Russia
By Orlando Figes. Bloomsbury
To understand Russia’s autocratic present, you must examine its past – although Russia’s perception of that past is ever-shifting. Its founding myths have shaped its history right up to the present. “Russia is a country held together by ideas rooted in its distant past, histories continuously reconfigured and repurposed to suit its present needs.”
This article is part of our guide to the Irish Times books of the year. Follow one of these links to read Malachy Clerkin on sports books / Tony Clayton-Lea on music books / Adrian Duncan on art books / Seán Hewitt and Martina Evans on poetry /Niamh Donnelly on fiction / Jane Casey on crime fiction / Claire Hennessy on young-adult fiction / Sara Keating on children’s books / Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Fintan O’Toole and more on their books of the year