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Fintan O'Toole's Favourite Reads of 2020

Posted on 9th November 2020 by Anna Orhanen

A prize-winning journalist, critic and the author of the bestselling Heroic Failure and Three Years in Hell, Fintan O'Toole is known for his keen observations of the current state of British and world politics. Sharing with us his favourite reads of 2020, O'Toole recommends five books to help unravel the complex times we live in.

If you write books about politics, it is nice to see that non-fiction accounts of contemporary events can make the best-seller lists. But maybe it’s not a great sign for the rest of the world. The more compelling the stories are, the more likely it is that we’re in a time of crisis. Nevertheless, the best political books, even if they’re dealing with dark materials, do help us to stay sane by giving us a grip on what’s happening. I’ve chosen books that, from very different angles, illuminate the darkness of contemporary politics.

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton

The cliché is that journalism is a first draft of history, but this gripping account of the rise of Vladimir Putin by the former long-serving Moscow Correspondent for the Financial Times feels like much more than that. It combines the immediacy of great journalism with a historian’s sense of the long-term forces that shape events – and for good measure it often reads like a crime thriller. It’s one of those rare books that feels essential to anyone who wants to understand the deeper narrative behind the news.

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Meticulously researched and written with clarity and pace, the definitive account of Vladimir Putin's rise to power is a compelling tale of KGB strongmen, sinister oligarchs and broken promises to the Russian people.
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Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary Trump

Donald Trump may not have achieved very much of what he promised his voters in 2016, but he can claim credit for creating a whole industry of book-length accounts and analyses, hagiographies and denunciations. In this election year, there has been an avalanche of required reading, with Bob Woodward’s Rage, Michael Cohen’s Disloyal and John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened at the top of the pile. But Mary Trump’s combination of family memoir and psychiatric diagnosis is the most searching and thoughtful. I don’t think there’s every been a book quite like it – a serving and immensely powerful politician scrutinised so intimately and so acutely by a close relative. (She is Donald’s niece.) It might have been subtitled The Making of a Sociopath. It might also have contributed to Trump’s unmaking.

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Recounting events from their shared youth and detailing the troubled, complex family dynamics in the Trump household, Donald Trump's niece Mary paints an uncompromising and candid portrait of the President’s coming-of-age.
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Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire

I didn’t think I’d have the slightest interest in reading the diary of the wife of a minor Tory, who rose and fell without trace. But Swire’s blow-by-blow account of life in the court of David Cameron is horribly entertaining. It is at once wildly indiscreet and utterly inscrutable. The indiscretion lies in the endless stream of cringeworthy moments, in which we encounter a world that is almost unbelievably puerile, snobbish, sexist and self-satisfied. If this is what an elite looks like, it is easy to understand why, given the chance in the 2016 Brexit referendum, people might want to kick it where it hurts. What remains inscrutable, though, is Swire’s real attitude to her own book. Is she, as she often pretends, merely a naïve recorder? Or does she know exactly how damning that record is? By the end, I decided that she’s too good a writer not to know precisely the effect she is creating: appalled incredulity.

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From Devon hedges to Downing Street dinners, Swire’s straight-talking, opinionated and frequently hilarious book reveals what it is like to be a politician’s spouse in modern Britain.
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Democracy for Sale by Peter Geoghegan

Peter Geoghegan’s brilliantly researched book begins with a moment of curiosity. On a train in the North of England, shortly before the Brexit referendum, he gets a copy of Metro newspaper. It has a glossy and clearly very expensive wrap-around supplement urging readers to vote Leave. But it is, apparently, paid for by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which does not operate in England at all. This sets Geoghegan off on the trail of the hidden pipelines of dark money that water the subsoil of British politics. What’s most remarkable in his account is just how easy it is to buy access and influence – and to hide the ways in which you are doing so. For any corporate or political interest, or any foreign power, a say in British democracy is available for the equivalent of petty cash. Geoghegan’s powerful book is the best account of how this works – and of how relatively easy it would be to stop it, if the government really wanted to.

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Plunging head first into the world of dark money, misinformation and influence games, Geoghegan’s meticulous and urgent book lays bare the most severe threats to global democracy.
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Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

We are drawn to grim narratives about human nature, maybe because they make better movies, more thrilling novels and spectacular series like Game of Thrones. The default assumption is set out in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: strip away the thin veneer of civilisation and we will start bullying and killing one another in no time. One of the best chapters in Rutger Bregman’s counter-argument is a true account of what happened when some schoolboys really did get marooned on a remote island: they survived by taking care of each other. Bregman’s book is especially timely in the year of the pandemic, a disaster that has shown that the vast majority of us want to behave decently and responsibly and, like those kids, take care of each other. He does a great job of unravelling the supposed evidence for our innate nastiness. In a dark time, Humankind reminds us that, given healthy political circumstances, we’re not so bad after all. Perhaps, in 2021, we will all have the chance to prove it. 

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Contesting the idea that we are innately self-seeking and driven by egotistical goals, the bestselling author of Utopia for Realists offers an uplifting history of the human capacity for kindness.

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