An Immigrant's Love Letter to the West
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It is one of the most positive developments of recent years that such people are emerging. Not least because they are breaking the stranglehold that traditional media used to have on the business of ideas. Episodes of Triggernometry regularly chalk up greater viewer numbers than Newsnight or other political shows on terrestrial TV. And there are reasons for that, not least that when they say “here is an important question that’s central to our future”, they do not then devote a four-and-a-half-minute segment to it where the airtime is divided between four maniacs. They ask experts and give them time to talk. An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West is Kisin’s first book, and it has evolved from his career as a comedian and podcast host. Much of it has grown out of discussions he and Foster have had with their guests, and it seems from the book that as he has spoken to other people he has developed his own thinking. In this way, the memoir is a pleasant and welcome read for those inclined to agree with Kisin’s classical liberal, pro-West, centrist vision of the world. That said, those familiar with Kisin’s viewpoint and work will find little new here—anyone looking for deep dives into the philosophical or moral roots of capitalism and democracy will instead find a recap of some of the more comical or extreme progressive and media offenses of the past several years.
In more writerly vein, the novelist and critic Anthony Quinn has written a love-letter to the Premier League title winners in Klopp: My Liverpool Romance (Faber, November). Mary Gaitskill’s sharpness and singular honesty are in evidence in Lost Cat (Daunt, November), a book-length essay about loss, safety and fear that centres on her fostering of two siblings. Orwell prize winner Kate Clanchy has written How to Grow Your Own Poem(Picador, September), an encouragement to write verse; in similar vein, Clive James’s last book The Fire of Joy(Picador, October) is a set of personal, quintessentially Jamesian commentaries on 80 of his favourite poems. This attitude is not given to Kisin. Despite being a very funny man, he also has what so many Russians have: what Miguel de Unamuno described as “the tragic sense of life”. It gives him an important perspective on the West at a time when the West would appear to be throwing away so much of what it has achieved. Not least the freedom of speech and thought which Kisin had not experienced in the Soviet Union but had at least expected to find in the West. Now more than ever before, we need to look long and hard at how we view and interact with the natural world. We’re living through the world’s sixth great extinction, one caused by us.” Helen Macdonald, introducing the essays in Vesper Flights (Cape), conveys one reason nature writing continues to flourish in nonfiction lists: every book in its way engages not only with how we live and balance our lives but with environmental crisis. Her previous work H is for Hawk established Macdonald as a brilliant practitioner of nature-memoir; this new book cautions against viewing the natural world as a ‘mirror of ourselves, reflecting our own world-view and our own needs, thoughts and hopes’. It collects together light, lovely, personal essays, many of which recall the author’s discovery of birds and plants in childhood. Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (Bodley Head) has already been hailed as a fascinating breakthrough in natural history. David Attenborough reflects on the environmental emergency in A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future (Ebury, October), while in The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism (Verso, October), Grace Blakeley asserts the need for Covid-19 to be a global wake-up call, and makes the case for a Green New Deal.Like many other things expected here, he found that precisely such principles were up for grabs. Kisin himself has made headlines in the past when he was asked to sign a form before a comedy gig promising that he wouldn’t say anything that might upset anyone in the crowd: almost a definition of how not to entertain an audience. Groupthink is another of the things which Kisin found in the West without expecting to. As he says at one point, “If there is one thing my Soviet childhood taught me, it’s that subscribing to someone else’s ideology will always inevitably mean having to suspend your own judgment about right and wrong to appease your tribe. I refuse to do so.”
There is some interesting lane-switching from Sarah Crossan, known for her brilliant YA verse novels: Here is the Beehive (Bloomsbury) brings the same form to an adult tale of love, betrayal and loss. Michel Faber, meanwhile, branches out into children’s fiction with Narnia-esque fable D: A Tale of Two Worlds (Doubleday, September). Philip Pullman’s Serpentine (Penguin, October), a previously unseen story of Lyra in the Arctic written before his current trilogy, will be gobbled up by fans. High-profile, bestselling books have played a vital role in focusing opposition to the Trump presidency, from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury to the recent broadsides fired by John Bolton and Mary Trump. Rage, Bob Woodward’s follow-up to his 2018 White House expose Fear (Simon & Schuster, September) is no doubt timed to influence voters in the November election. Other big-name political books include What Is at Stake Now by Mikhail Gorbachev (Polity, September), an exploration of global instability and renewed threats to peace, and Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump by former British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch (William Collins, September).
Towards the end, he wisely quotes the Soviet defector and KGB operative Yuri Bezmenov, who gave a still-famous television interview in the 1980s in which he explained how the Soviets were attempting to subvert the West. It was not just a military campaign, he pointed out. There was a specific effort by the KGB to engage in psychological warfare of a seemingly subtle kind. For instance, he explained the effort to “change the perception of reality for every American to such an extent that despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their countries. It takes only between two and five years to destabilise a nation.” SF guru Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent fiction has focused on climate change; in The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, October) he imagines the tumultuous decades to come. Notable short story collections include Daddy by The Girls author Emma Cline (Chatto), spooky tales about the horrors of technology from John Lanchester in Reality and Other Stories (Faber, October), and eccentric snapshots of the west of Ireland in That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (Canongate, October). Helen Macdonald, author of Vesper Flights, at her home in Hawkedon. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian