A further selection of the best and worst books of 2008 , chosen by some of our regular reviewers
I’m not sure quite what it is that captivated me about Tim Winton’s novel, Breath (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99). It’s a sort of Huck Finn goes surfing in Australia. A scrawny kid bums along the coast in search of the ultimate wave and falls under the spell of Sando, the mysterious wizard of the surfboard. Not my scene, to put it mildly, but it is queerly compelling and I can still taste the spray.
Mick Imlah’s The Lost Leader (Faber, £9.99) well deserved its Forward Poetry Prize. This irresistible collection swings you through the myths and heroes of Scotland, ancient and modern, with a salty rollick to be savoured alongside other ironical Scotch bards such as Dunbar, and the Byron of Don Juan.
Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is a brilliant reconstruction of a classic Victorian crime — the savage murder of a young middle-class boy in his apparently secure family home in the country. Summerscale teases out the truth of what happened and its long consequences, in both fact and fiction.
The Murder Farm (Quercus, £8.99) is Andrea Schenkel’s first novel. Based on a real case, it is set in the 1950s and deals with the murder of a German farmer and his family. It’s a short, dark book that looks unflinchingly at the question of why people kill each other. Unusual, memorable and thought-provoking.
Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea (Faber, £20) is the story of the battle for the Mediterranean between the Ottoman empire and a fragile Christian alliance dominated by Hapsburg Spain in the 16th century. It’s a riveting account of a bitterly contested political, ideological and economic conflict whose effects are still with us. Narrative history at its best.
The Third Reich at War (Allen Lane, £30) completes Richard Evans’s great trilogy on Nazi Germany. No one else has described so well how a populous, educated and urbanised society, with a strong legal tradition, succumbed to a movement directed by a comparatively small number of crude and philistine fanatics. Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire (Allen Lane, £30) traces the German ambition to clear eastern Europe for colonisation by Germans, disposing of the indigenous inhabitants by mass murder and enslavement. One ought to resist the continuing obsession with the second world war. But it is not easy to do, with works of this quality hitting the bookshops. Those who want to be reassured that there are fine histories of other subjects should turn to The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England by John Styles (Yale, £25), one of the best works of English social history to appear for years. Styles has scoured contemporary novels, verses and paintings, memoirs, letters, newspaper advertisements, shop catalogues and price lists to recreate a whole world of dress-conscious working Englishmen whose existence most of us will not have suspected.
Alaa al-Aswany’s tale of life among ex-pat Egyptians in an American university is a delightful, entertaining novel about lust, greed, duplicity and ambition (Chicago, Fourth Estate, £14.99). Al-Aswany is a natural story-teller with a considerable comic gift and his ear for the tragic and his political passion give his work a sharp and uncomfortable edge.
Agnès Humbert was a member of one of the first Resistance networks in Occupied Paris. Arrested in 1941 and sent to slave labour in German factories for the rest of the war, she returned to France in 1945 to create a diary of the war years. Humane, perceptive and completely unsentimental, Résistance (Bloomsbury £14.99) is an extraordinary and little-told story.
It was a pretty undistinguished year for British fiction, but fortunately a good one for fiction elsewhere. Our Story Begins (Bloomsbury, £18.99), by Tobias Wolff, is a collection from one of America’s greatest literary talents of the last 30 years. Wolff is a writer of supreme grace and penetrating insight, and this moving, well-crafted and witty volume of new and selected stories threatens to exhaust a reader’s stock of laudatory adjectives.
My novel of the year is Pandora in the Congo (Canongate, £14.99), by the Spanish writer, Albert Sànchez Piñol. The second part (following 2005’s superb Cold Skin) of a loose trilogy whose keynote is a Swiftian exploration of man’s encounters with his own darker side, it is a homage to late-Empire, fantastical yarn-spinning, a story about our relationship with stories, and — somehow, in spite of its grotesquery and derring-do — a considered piece of literature. Indignation (Cape, £16.99), Philip Roth’s thousandth novel (approximately), deserves an honourable mention: slighter than his masterworks, it is nevertheless a plaintive and elegant book.
In the novel stakes three of the ante-post favourites, our brightest and best — Carey, Rushdie and Roth — found the ground hard-going, but coming up on the rails is Zoë Heller. The Believers (Penguin, £16.99), Roth-like in its intensity, is a savage comedy, a hymn to life’s hopelessness. Cricket finally makes it into serious fiction, in America of all places, where, in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Fourth Estate, £14.99), it crashes along with other American dreams. I plugged John Laughland’s A History of Political Trials (Peter Lang, £12.99) in this magazine and I unhesitatingly do so again. It is critical reading for a generation hell-bent on dynamiting the bedrock that is the rule of law. The disappointment of the year was Alberto Manguel’s much-hyped The Library at Night (Yale, £18.99), in which a lot of interesting stuff struggles to stay afloat in a sea of narcissism.
I seem to have devoured a lot of new or newish books this year, sometimes with much enjoyment but not often with unmixed delight. Perhaps the only exception was Owen Matthews’s Stalin’s Children (Bloomsbury, £17.99). I also enjoyed A Great and Terrible King (Hutchinson, £20), Marc Morris’s biography of Edward I.
Any Spectator reader will certainly be properly sceptical about slim volumes explaining our changing world and how it works in 180 pages. However, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organisations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, (Portfolio, £15.99) has some sharp observations to make about organisations, the internet and how to make things happen quickly and engage people. Those interested in politics and government take note.
There is also a serious and academic book about Lord Berners (Lord Berners: Composer, Writer, Painter, The Boydell Press, £25). This in itself may be a Berneresque joke by Peter Dickinson, the author. However, even if it is not, it is worth looking at for the eccentric peer’s remark about the boa and the French horn.
Human Love (Sceptre, £12.99) is not the best novel Andrei Makine has written, but it is better than any other new one I have read this year. Makine looks reality in the face, and yet retains a belief in beauty and the transforming power of love. The translation by Geoffrey Strachan catches the tone of Makine’s French perfectly.
The best works of non-fiction I have read this year are The Last Office (Weidenfeld, £25) by Geoffrey Moorhouse and Tom Holland’s Millennium (Little, Brown, £25). The first, focussing on the great Benedictine Priory of Durham, tells in exact and moving detail the story of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. The second offers an exhilarating sweep across European history either side of the year 1000; riveting.
It’s a crying shame that Carlo Gebler’s work is not better known and that he has yet to come to the attention of Booker judges. His novel, A Good Day for a Dog (Lagan Press, £11.99), which came out in the spring, is brilliant: so well observed and concisely written and vivid that you hardly notice you are holding a book in your hands. It deals with misdemeanour and retribution, guilt and brutality, but don’t let that put you off; so does Crime and Punishment. Gebler is the real thing, a writer of rare integrity and gifts.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate, £14.99) was surely over-hyped as the great post-11 September novel. I liked the idea of its being about a New York cricket team, but it was slower than a village cricket match in the rain.
Piers Paul Read
Three books about God whose content is described in their titles. The first, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind by Anthony Flew (HarperCollins, £15.99), is a compelling account by an eminent philosopher of how, by ‘following the argument wherever it may lead you’ (Socrates), and taking into account the discoveries in physics and cosmology made in his lifetime, he has been forced to conclude that the universe is not an accidental construct but is the creation of an all-powerful intelligence outside space and time. A convincing refutation of the arguments put forward by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
Yakov M. Rabkin’s A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zed Books, £18.99) is a historically fascinating account of the widespread opposition to Zionism among Jews in the first half of the 20th century, both within Palestine and in the Diaspora, which survives to this day. To them a Jew is defined not by race but by his fidelity to the Torah. Zionism is a Jewish heresy which has won widespread acceptance — like Christianity.
For a lucid exposition of that second Jewish heresy, read Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth (Bloomsbury, £14.99) which describes the self-revelation of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel narrative as the God of the Torah — not merely God’s messenger or a human manifestation of the divine. ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Written in a gentle style, and with the authority of his great learning, Pope Benedict reconstructs what has been deconstructed by various Biblical exegetes in the past. Jesus was not the revolutionary rabbi who made no claims for his own divinity but the total and final fulfilment of scripture. The God of Israel and the God of Christians is one and the same.
Mark Bostridge’s Florence Nightingale (Viking, £25) is a major reassessment of the Lady of the Lamp and her legend. Bostridge shows how Nightingale both exploited and denied her femininity to drive her reforms through the male-dominated establishment of Victorian Britain. Balanced, engagingly readable and based on impressive research in Nightingale’s vast archive, this will surely be definitive.
The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson (Faber, £18.99) is another story of men behaving badly, in this case Dorothy’s brother, William, who hogged the credit for her ideas. Wilson’s subtle, prceptive criticism illuminates Dorothy’s extraordinary life with thought-provoking originality.
For relief from the angst of down-trodden women, James Knox has written a sparkling book about a witty man. Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (Frances Lincoln, £25), published to
coincide with the exhibition at the Wallace Collection, is full of good things and provides a long-overdue appreciation. Who better than Maudie Littlehampton to cheer us up in these dark days?
Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans (Cape, £25)celebrates the achievement of one of the greatest English writers of the last century. Lewis used to declare that he was the only man he knew who could enter a room, sum up the situation, and leave it without any one’s knowing he had been there. Evans’s heroically well-researched biography of this elusive subject is a triumph. He has created a vivid and just portrait of a very funny and difficult man whose books were recognised as classics by discerning readers. Lewis, who used to say that England gave him asthma, wrote some excellent fiction. But he was better known for his ‘travel writing’, which in his case was reporting elevated to the highest level of eye-witness history, and a far cry from the ‘cheeky chappy, aren’t the natives funny’ chatter that passes muster today. Julian Evans approaches his task like a doom, a technique that enables him to track Lewis through three marriages and numerous wars and to reflect the strange mixture of wariness and high-spirits that characterised the author of Naples ’44 and A Dragon Apparent.
I always look forward to a book by Philip Hoare, and his Leviathan (Fourth Estate, £18.99) had all the vim, gusto and enthusiasm for curiosa that anyone could wish. The best biography I read was Mark Bostridge’s Florence Nightingale (Viking, £25). J. G.Ballard’s superb and tranquil-surfaced memoirs, Miracles of Life (Fourth Estate, £14.99), which he has declared to be his last book, contains some of his very best writing, which is saying a good deal. The non-fiction work I got most pleasure out of, however, was Perfumes: The Guide (Profile, £20). The authors, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, who very much know what they are talking about, and can write unforgettably well (sometimes excoriatingly rudely, too), here produced an unexpected classic of criticism.
Among the new novels I enjoyed most was Jacob Ross’s wonderful Pynter Bender (Fourth Estate, £16.99). Ross is a figure of great authority and renown in his native Grenada, where this novel has been keenly awaited for years, but it’s a unique and exciting journey for any reader. I also loved Amitav Ghosh’s dense and sumptuous Sea of Poppies (John Murray, £18.99); and Tim Winton’s wonderfully controlled Breath (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) did exactly and marvellously what it set out to do. Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country (Viking, £14.99) was a very strong debut.
The worst book I read all year was the autobiography of John Prescott. Absolutely scandalously bad, if you reflect what political memoirs used to be like (Prezza, Headline, £18.99).
My most memorable novel of the year was Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), set in Australia, the country to which the author emigrated from Ceylon in her 16th year.
Her protagonist, also an immigrant, in his case from India, sees Australia as resembling ‘a bricked-up door at which, faint but insistent, the sound of knocking can be heard’. This sense of exclusion is beautifully conveyed, as is the restless drama in which most of the other characters live out their tumultuous lives. Kretser’s creativity is so fecund that events and personalities are crowded into a narrative often too short comfortably to contain them. But her book nonetheless remains a most impressive achievement.
The work that gave me most pleasure was Jeremy Lewis’s Grub Street Irregular (Harper Press, £20), the third instalment of an extremely sharp and funny account of life in a literary jungle in which, for him at least, many of the biggest beasts have been women.
By far the best book I have read this year is Ferdinand Mount’s Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes (Bloomsbury, £20). It is the humane, sincere and often very funny autobiography of a man who was, for a time, head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit. There are sympathetic and revealing portraits of Keith Joseph and Selwyn Lloyd. I particularly relished his portrait of Siegfried Sassoon, whose besetting trait was ‘to repent of any gesture almost as soon as he had made it’. His loving tribute to his father brought tears to my eyes — something I have not experienced for some several years.
This year I enjoyed Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf (Icon Books, £8.99), a brilliant book about how human beings learned to read and write. There’s a superb explanation of the conditions that cause dyslexia — which, Wolf points out, wouldn’t have conferred an evolutionary disadvantage until very recently, and might even have been beneficial to some people.
I liked Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt (Allen Lane, £20), which explains, among lots of other things, why it’s counterproductive, beyond a certain point, to tell people what to do. People drive better when they have to think about what they’re doing, rather than living in a world of relentless instructions. And I take my hat off to Randall Stross, whose book Planet Google (Atlantic Books, £16.99) explains the genius of that company: how they found a way to make more data into better data, which is, perhaps, the modern-day equivalent of striking oil. Naturally I loved Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury, £14.99). And I was pleasantly drawn into Ethan Canin’s novel America, America (Bloomsbury, £17.99).
This seems as good a place as any to admit to one of my guiltiest pleasures. As a child I was an avid fan of the comic strip, ‘Peanuts’, and bought every single paperback selection published in this country by Coronet. Even during grumpy adolescence I maintained the collection, which now sits in a box in a loft somewhere. You grow up, you carry Garcia Marquez novels on public transport, you try and airbrush these childish enthusiasms out of your life.
Fashions change in the most unexpected ways, though, and since his death in 2000, Charles M. Schulz has acquired a critical approval he never really enjoyed during his lifetime. All sorts of important writers have marvelled at the glorious simplicity of his draftsmanship and his unerring jokecraft, all underpinned by a quiet melancholy and stoicism you don’t tend to find in four-frame daily comic strips. Now, by some miracle, the entire Peanuts oeuvre is gradually being republished in this country, by Canongate, over approximately a 20-year period, in lavishly appointed hardbacks (The Complete Peanuts Collection, £15 each). I had the first two — 1950-52 and 1953-54 — for Christmas last year, and have put in a pitiful, plaintive request for the next two this year. Unlike almost everything you read as a child, they are actually better than you remember them.
Oldish and newish novels I have particularly enjoyed this year include J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park (2006) and Amy Bloom’s Away (2007).
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.