Many Russia watchers have struggled to read Vladimir Putin’s mind to make sense of his mischief and defiance. In Putin’s People, former FT Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton looks beyond the Russian president to the ex-KGB men who have dominated his regime. This colourful, often terrifying cast of characters rose to power determined to restore Russia to its former glory. While turning against the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era, which they accused of looting the riches of the state, they formed a new class of business tycoons in a more controlled and loyal system that revolves around the all-powerful Putin. The book is an investigative work that often reads like a thriller that could make for a gripping TV series one day. It’s dense — and you may need a glossary to keep track of all the characters — but it’s a fascinating study of money and power that enriches our understanding of the Putin regime.
On a different note, I’ve been reading poetry in lockdown, and would recommend a lyrical reminder of the Soviet past through the selected poems of Anna Akhmatova, the 20th-century Russian poet. As protests swept the US in the wake of the George Floyd killing, I read about the racial legacy of the Deep South as told in the verses of Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard.
Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown and to my own illness, I read far more than usual — mostly thick historical books and novels I would not have had the time to read normally. So very difficult to choose. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is probably the book that made me think the most, even two months after I finished it. I cannot think of any other book that is so different in terms of both style — or more accurately: styles — substance, and diversity of characters. It gave me a new and unique window of the wide spectrum of human nature. The combination of sadness, unfairness, absurdity, survival and joy reflects life in general.
FT global business columnist
I usually hate memoirs, but I ate up In the Land of Men, by Adrienne Miller, a tale of the New York literary world in the twilight days of the 1990s, before screens killed books, as lived by a young female editor at the storied men’s magazine, Esquire.
Novelist and poet
My recommendation isn’t from this year. But I wish to draw attention to it. This is a book that everyone should read, one of the most loved books in the world, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is a French classic that is a universal classic, translated splendidly into English by Michael Morpurgo. It is destined to become as much a part of everyone’s mental culture as Alice in Wonderland. It is a kind of spiritual deprivation not to know this essential book.
FT associate editor and business columnist
Two books I read out of duty this year brought unexpected pleasure. Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work has smart ideas about dealing with tech-fuelled joblessness. Louai Al Roumani, who helped to run a bank in the Syrian war, offers timely thoughts on leading through a crisis in Lessons from a Warzone. But after months of locked down home-cooking, my top choice is The Restaurant, a random but writerly history of eating out by William Sitwell. From the pizzas of Pompeii to the creamed spam casserole of 1950s London and the unprintable tweets of a scorned French chef, it was an entirely cheering delight.
Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (Knopf) has the crackling pace of a good thriller, but is fuelled by scalding anger. Her three protagonists have big dreams — Jivan, a young Muslim woman, wants to rise beyond the Kolkata slums, Lovely, who is transgender, dreams of becoming a film actress, and PT Sir exchanges an ordinary teacher’s life for power and danger as a minor cog in a rightwing party. An incautious Facebook post after she witnesses the burning of a train places Jivan in jail, her life at risk. Majumdar’s debut is sharply contemporary, a magnificent and thoroughly chilling exploration of injustice.
FT Weekend editor
From the past, I am with Nilanjana Roy and Ben Okri in tipping Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for inspiration; of the 2020 crop I would single out one yet to reach the bookstores: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum’s impassioned J’accuse against the “new” populist right, including some of her old friends, for their abandonment of so many principles. It took me back to the now bedraggled dreams of 1989, when I embarked on journalism in eastern Europe, and also sets up the US electoral battle in November. Her thesis will be among the debates at our three-day online festival — for details, ftweekend.live.ft.com.
FT contributing editor
Wherever the tantalising “air bridge” might transport you out of lockdown, the chances are slim that it will be to the mountainous borderland where northern Macedonia and eastern Albania meet. But you can go there instead in the spellbinding pages of Kapka Kassabova’s To the Lake. Lake Ohrid is deep and swimming with reflections and so is Kassabova’s lovely book, the weave of personal memoir (this was her grandmother’s country), cultural history and physical geography that she does with peerless vividness, humane sympathy and the kind of ironic bite that that other cleareyed traveller Laurence Sterne would have appreciated.
One of my 2020 reading highlights so far is Deepa Anappara’s wonderful debut novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. There’s nothing quite like coming across a writer whose style is a world in itself, and this book is rich in story too. Set in India, it follows three self-appointed child detectives searching for a missing boy, drawing attention to the many children who go missing in Indian cities every day. It is jubilantly and astutely written, bursting with compassion for its characters and a sense of vivid adventure, at once both childlike and wise. Life lifts off every page.
FT literary editor
Like many FT readers, lockdown has seen me taking refuge in the hands of old favourites — Simenon, the odd Wodehouse — while struggling to keep up with a constantly shifting publishing schedule as new titles are postponed to hopefully calmer times (our end-of-year selection is set to be a bumper one). Of the more recent offerings, Yan Lianke’s Three Brothers and its remarkable insight into the realities of recent Chinese history told through the story of his family left an impression. Notes From An Apocalypse, Mark O’Connell’s illumination of the world of prepping doomsters, bunker builders and would-be runaways provided for some grisly fascination and pertinence. In a different, jarring key I’m enjoying Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 3, the final instalment in her savage reckoning with contemporary France.
Merryn Somerset Webb
Editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek
I like mysteries. But not violence. Well done plots and a bit of charm but not too much emotional entanglement, mawkishness or full-on misery. The first month of lockdown was all about Georges Simenon’s charming Maigret novels (worth reading just to feel better about your lockdown drinking). Closer to home I am now on Ambrose Parry’s latest 19th-century Edinburgh medical mystery, The Art of Dying. Some gore (historical gore doesn’t count) but mostly nice historical detail (reminding you that doctors never do know everything) with a little overlay of romantic tension and a side of old fashioned feminism. Compelling — and gratifyingly unchallenging — stuff.
One of my favourite reads this year was The Ratline by Philippe Sands. It is an incredibly moving, powerful book about love, lies and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive. A professor of law, Sands offers not only an important historical analysis but also a unique insight into the mind and daily life of a criminal on the run, daring to look a butcher in the eye.
Novelist and FT contributor
Negative Capability, Michele Roberts’ memoir of a novelist’s villainous year, was bracing and galvanising. Modestly billed as a book about failure it is more an account of how life’s setbacks are best countered by ever sterner levels of artistic engagement. Roberts’ prose is winning and her personality leans naturally towards whatever results in maximum life. Whether focusing on how novels are made or flawed friendships or what might be delicious to have for lunch, her thoughts are intricate and often inspiring.
All this week, FT writers and critics choose their favourites — from politics, economics, science and history to art, tech, food and wellness. Novels, poetry and audiobooks feature too. Explore the series here
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