Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-45 by Saul Friedlander (Phoenix, £10.99)
This is actually an abridged version of two books by Friedlander, one of them the Pulitzer prize-winning The Years of Extermination. Friedlander, a Holocaust survivor, analyses how a “civilised” nation justified policies that ended with death camps for Europe’s Jews and Gypsies. Divided into three parts – Persecution, Terror and Shoah – this book provides the most ghastly example of “mission creep” imaginable. Through painstaking accumulation of official documents, media reports and testimonies Friedlander recreates the atmosphere of brutality and mania that enveloped Europe.
There is still debate about how much people knew of the Nazis’ plans, especially before the war. But some had few doubts: Adam Czerniakow, head of Warsaw’s Jewish Council, showed council members a drawer where he had put “a bottle with 24 cyanide tablets, one for each of us... should the need arise”. Arthur Seldon: A Life for Liberty by Colin Robinson (John Murray, £12.99) Arthur Seldon was editorial director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a free-market think tank, for 30 years. In this role he published the work of theorists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, those advocates of low taxation and economic liberalism who inspired Margaret Thatcher.
Robinson – also of the IEA – traces Seldon’s economic and moral beliefs back to his East End Jewish childhood. Growing up in a closeknit community that mostly regulated itself and stressed the economic imperative of providing for the family, Seldon became convinced these virtues were the best basis for nations as well as neighbourhoods.
Seldon was prescient in many ways. This book opens with a quote of his from 1980: “China will go capitalist. Soviet Russia will not survive the century. Labour as we know it will never rule again.” The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (Virago, £11.99) Set in Thirties Alabama, this book starts with the event that will shape nine-year-old Tess Moore’s life for years to come. As Tess idles outside on a warm summer evening she sees a woman throw a baby down a well.
Tess’s efforts, initially to persuade her parents of what she has seen and then to discover the dead baby’s identity, act as the reader’s route into an isolated, impoverished community.
Depression-era novels and memoirs are not hard to find but Tess’s child’s eye-view brings a different perspective to the poverty all around her. Slightly better off than her friends since her family has a larger patch of land on which to grow vegetables, she comes gradually to see how destitution closes off people’s choices and embarks on her adult life with inquisitiveness and intelligence intact. Art of the Crèche by James L Govan (Merrell, £9.95) James Govan and his wife, Emilia, began collecting nativity scenes in the Seventies. Over the years they amassed more than 450 crèches and this book gives a glimpse of the variety and vitality of their collection.
Each crèche featured has been beautifully photographed and is accompanied by a short explanatory piece about the artist who made it and the culture it reflects. It’s fascinating to see how local elements are incorporated into the tableaux – a condor hovers over a Peruvian scene of brightly dressed worshippers who look as though they’ve found a perfect reason to party. The range of materials used to make these crèches is striking, from wood, stone and clay to bamboo and cinnamon paste. Mohammed Amin’s stately terracotta kings on horseback carrying parasols will stay in my mind long past the Christmas season. Annus Horribilis by Ann Treneman (Gibson Square, £9.99)
The Times’s parliamentary sketchwriter has had a front row seat in an especially interesting year of British parliamentary history – interesting in the sense of the Chinese proverb (disastrous, in other words). Luckily the collapse in public trust of politicians and of democracy in general provides many comic possibilities, and Treneman, who has a wonderful sense of the absurd, and a deadpan style of writing, recounts a disturbing year with hilarity.
As the economy falls to pieces and Brown’s Government lurches from one PR disaster to another, a succession of walk-on characters add to their problems, such as the Gurkhas’ champion Joanna Lumley, who Treneman suggests at one point is actually running the country, Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, and a series of greedy, thieving, houseflipping MPs. It was, as the subtitle says, “the worst year in British politics”, but also a very funny one.