When TV presenters write history books it is the mistakes you treasure most, as when David Dimbleby blithely pronounced that Augustine had introduced Christianity to Britain (Christianity being over 200 years old in Britain, with Welsh bishops, before Augustine came). But Andrew Marr’s A History of the World (Macmillan, £25) is different. It is a distinguished work of history in its own right. The TV series wasn’t up to much, but the book is wonderful, and better than H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History. It made me wonder what else is deliberately hidden away to advance the careers of those prattling public faces that appear on our screens. All we need now is Simon Cowell’s concordance to the Gododdin.
Simon Mawer’s novel of the French Resistance, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Little, Brown, £16.99) is enviably good. The picture of wartime Paris is chilling — a city where no one can be trusted and everyone has something to fear. There is also a charming love story and a bleak ending.
In a year when another long novel has won the Booker, here are three short ones that pleased me. Pleasure may not actually be the right word to apply to Jérôme Ferrari’s novella, Where I Left My Soul (MacLehose, £12), but this examination of the corrosive effect of torture as practised by officers of the French army during the Algerian war is brilliantly and movingly done. The book, a prize-winner in France, has received less attention here than it deserves.
Ron Rash is the best American novelist I have come upon in a long time. The Cove (Canongate, £14.99) is set in redneck country in the Appalachians during the 1914-18 war. It is grim, intense and dramatic. Comparison with Faulkner is inescapable, and Rash is good enough not to make that far-fetched.
D.J. Taylor’s Secondhand Daylight (Corsair, £14.99) is the second of his James Ross novels, set in 1930s London. Agreeably seedy, with echoes of Patrick Hamilton and early Graham Greene, it is a delight for anyone fascinated by Auden’s ‘low, dishonest decade’. That Taylor catches the rhythms of other writers so well will surprise nobody acquainted with his Private Eye parody reviews, some of which are now published as What You Didn’t Miss (Constable, £10). Some are gentle — his Anita Brookner is a gem — others more savage — A.S. Byatt, for one, being cut to a
Last year I read lots of books by stand-up comedians. They were good fun but entirely unmemorable. This year I read lots of books by philosophers. They were no fun whatsoever and also entirely unmemorable. The topic of metaphysics has fallen into the hands of people without a sense of humour.
The cupboard isn’t quite bare, though. Socrates was asked if a man should marry. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If he gets a good wife he’ll be happy. If he gets a bad wife he’ll become a philosopher.’ David Hume, the great Scots rationalist, was invited to deny the existence of God. He said he was unable to do so because he hadn’t enough faith. Bertrand Russell climbed into a London cab and was asked by the driver, ‘So, what’s it all about then, Lord Russell?’ ‘And do you know what,’ the driver reported later, ‘he couldn’t tell me.’ So I regretfully report that my book of the year, a popular guide to philosophy with an entertaining title like Solipsism for the Masses, remains unpublished.
Several years ago an ancient leather-bound book was being passed around the locality. It was said to be invested with diabolic powers, and many of those who read it testified afterwards that they were physically transported to the evil kingdom it described. An unemployed father of six apparently never came back. What rubbish, I thought.
Then I read Wolf Hall and had a similar experience. Figuring, therefore, that Hilary Mantel has the huge advantage of being a witch or something, I went £100 at 5-2 with Ladbrokes on her Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) to win this year’s Booker prize. I didn’t even listen to the announcement. I simply strolled down to the betting shop the next morning and collected. For Christmas I will be treating myself to a new hardback copy and I am looking forward to being hideously spellbound once more.
Perhaps the most unusual crime novel I came across this year was Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime, £18.99). In fact it’s three novels in one, each written in the style of a different author — Simenon, Chandler and Jim Thompson. Taken together, they chart the dark decline of an American author and much else. You can quibble with the details here, but not with the splendidly unorthodox conception of this always interesting book.
Lynn Shepherd takes a very different tack in Tom-All-Alone’s (Corsair, £7.99), a joyful pastiche of the 19th-century novel. Set in 1850, it occupies a fictional space between Bleak House and The Woman in White. An omniscient 21st-century narrator hovers in the manner of John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. This is very much a crime novel, with some very nasty crimes indeed, but it’s also a witty, literate entertainment that lets the reader play Spot-the-Reference.
This brings me neatly to my final choice, Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City (Atlantic, £25), a brilliant survey of 19th-century London that synthesises an extraordinary range of material. No other book I know conveys so well the texture of the sprawling, often anarchic metropolis — the sights, sounds and smells. Subtitled Everyday Life in Dickens’s London, it will enrich your reading not only of Dickens but also of Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle and any other Victorian writer who used London as a setting.
Two books that tell us about the way we live now were The Heart Broke In by James Meek (Canongate, £17.99), and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (Cape, £14.99). These are both long, enjoyable novels, the first concerned with private morality, the second with public.
The hook on which Meek hangs his tale is the relationship of a TV personality with a 15-year-old contestant on his show Teen Makeover. Very much of the moment, then. The big question Meek asks is how, in a secular society, do we decide what is right and what is wrong?
Where Meek is earnest, Wolfe is irrepressible, bursting balloons of hypocrisy wherever he finds them, especially those inflated by the commissars of multiculturalism. His novel addresses the difficulties of assimilation where they rule.
An unexpected pleasure was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Granta, £7.99, Kindle, £7.99). This was the first entire book I have read on a Kindle, and the impersonality of the device was perfect for the odd, sometimes dispassionate, occasionally tortured, voice of the narrator, Eli Sisters.
Eli and his brother Charlie are hired killers during the California Gold Rush. It sounds like a western, but I doubt whether fans of Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour would recognise it as such. Full of anachronism and with little historical detail, it has the stripped power of a fable, yet derives its persuasiveness from the voice of the narrator, with whom it is worryingly difficult not to sympathise.
Spitalfields Life by The Gentle Author (Saltyard Books, £20). The writer started a daily blog about his life in Spitalfields — people, jobs, buildings, street life, monuments. A whole piece of London is here, ghosts of Spitalfields’ past haunting the vibrant present. It is unlike any other book.
Two excellent thrillers by two rising stars. Safe House by Chris Ewan (Faber, £14.99) is set on an Isle of Man as you never imagined it and has one of the best new heroines for a long time. Whereas Shadow of the Rock, the first book by Thomas Mogford (Bloomsbury, £12.99), is partly set on Gibraltar. It’s exciting and assured — with a hero wonderfully called Spike Sanguinetti. These two show popular fiction at its best.
The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy, (Weidenfeld, £20) is the richly evocative story of the women who sailed out to the Indian Raj in search of husbands. A fascinating era and a picture of a closed world and society long gone but which the author recaptures vividly.
Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend, by Psiche Hughes (Thames & Hudson, £19.95), reveals Beryl as a painter, which not everyone knew, and remembers the great writer, character and wonderful friend so many of us loved and miss greatly. Her portrait of her friend Barbara Haddon, from the late 1950s, is reproduced below.
The books of poetry I have found trailing after me round the house recently are Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99), Robert Saxton’s The China Shop Pictures (Shearsman Books, £8.95) and Jamie McKendrick’s Out There (Faber, £9.99). Also terrific are James Fenton’s Yellow Tulips (Faber, £14.99) and John Fuller’s New Selected Poems (Chatto, £15.99). Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry (Oberon Masters, £12.99), on the execution and philosophy of the art, is probably going to be a modern classic.
At home just now I am surrounded by a wall of books which grows taller daily as each post brings more submissions for the
Hessell-Tiltman history prize of which I am a judge. I can’t name any of these books here, however much I admire them, and reading other books makes me feel guilty at neglecting my homework.
One way and another it hasn’t been a good reading year for me. Days spent poring over proofs left me in no mood to read. In bed I have been stubbornly plugging away at Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It doesn’t improve on a second acquaintance. The prose is laboured and the treatment of women dated, but I find it oddly comforting and am determined to reach the end.
The two books which I am going to read over Christmas are both written by friends. They have been given the highest ratings by my mother, who is (a) impartial and (b) the reader whose judgment I trust more than any other. They are hefty biographies, both of which, like good wine, have been a long time in the making. Anne Somerset’s Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion (HarperPress, £16.75) is a scholarly account of a truly dreadful woman. Artemis Cooper’s Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, £25), on the other hand, is the life of an immensely charming man — compelling, funny and wise.
Martin Vander Weyer
For a weighty read, I commend Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Profile, £25), who divide the world past and present into ‘extractive’ and ‘inclusive’ regimes — the former despotic and corrupt, the latter democratic and open — and set out to show that only inclusivity generates sustainable growth and wellbeing. For one to make you angry, try A Price to Pay: The Inside Story of the NatWest Three by David Bermingham (Gibson Square, £8.99), whose grotesque experience of the US justice system confirms everything Conrad Black has lately had to say about it.
My line of work, in financial commentary, never leaves much time to keep abreast of the world of fiction. But Robert Harris’s thriller The Fear Index (Arrow, £7.99), about a hedge-fund genius whose computers seem to take on a mad life of their own, is the best of the financial-crisis novels so far. I also liked John Lanchester’s Capital (Faber, £17.99), a big read in which the distant rumble of collapsing banks is one strand in a tapestry of the life of a contemporary south London street.
Wonder of wonders, I find myself choosing a work by A.N. Wilson as my book of the year, his novel about Josiah Wedgwood, The Potter’s Hand (Atlantic Books, £17.99). I was intrigued, as I know my Wedgwood. My first book was a biography of his greatest imitator and rival, the 18th-century Staffordshire potter John Turner — the two men were also, surprisingly, friends, accompanying each other on a search for clay in Cornwall.
Because of that book, I got to know Josiah’s direct descendant, Sir John Wedgwood, and stayed with him and his wife at Leith Hill Place, near Dorking. Sir John was the boss of Wilson’s father, who was managing director of Wedgwood’s — so, like me, Wilson has an ‘in’ to the Wedgwood story.
I especially liked the sub-plot of this roman à clay — about Wedgwood’s randy nephew Tom Byerley being sent to find clay in America and falling for a Cherokee maiden. Dubliners call the statue of Molly Malone with her wheelbarrow ‘the tart with a cart’, and the one of Oscar Wilde ‘the quare in the square’. On those lines, Byerley’s success might be ‘the score with the squaw’.
Philosophically, to say the least, and despite my Economics O-level, grade C, four years of global financial crisis has left me at somewhat of a loss, so I am grateful to David Graeber, an anthropologist and the intellectual leader of the Occupy movement, for his Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, £21.99), which is brilliant, unexpectedly funny, and provides many bracing perspectives on the subject. A debt, Graeber argues, is a promise corrupted by maths and violence, and the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts has been exposed as a lie: only some of us do. What is needed now is a jubilee of the sort declared every 50 years in the Bible, by which all debts are cancelled.
Sean Magee’s Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways (Bantam, £25) is a delightfully entertaining history of a British institution, and the perfect Christmas present even for the tone deaf — as a number of castaways have been.
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (Harvill Secker, £16.99) is a beautiful, ironic novel about one man’s anti-heroic quest for meaning, or at least some sort of battered ‘personal realism’, with further comic-tragic riffs on the wages of nervous travel, bohemian penury and the obsessive worship of dead authors.
Another favourite is The Harappa Files (illustrated below) by the Indian graphic novelist Sarnarth Banarjee (Harper Collins, £19.99), a satirical mock-taxonomy of contemporary types, including the hilariously acute ‘Marxists of high birth’. Banarjee can be wry, then slapstick, coruscating, then melancholy, and his elegant phrases are amplified or wilfully undermined by his clever, spikey illustrations. Banarjee is still relatively obscure in the UK, but deserves a much wider audience.
And The Harbour by Francesca Brill (Bloomsbury, £11.99) is a wonderfully sage and gripping novel based on the extraordinary real-life experiences of the journalist Emily Hahn in occupied Hong Kong during the second world war.
Nelson: The Sword of Albion (Bodley Head, £30) is the second part of John Sugden’s monumental life. It deals with the final, glorious phase of Nelson’s career and covers three of his four greatest battles. Sugden has gone through a good deal of unpublished material and this two-volume work will remain standard for many years. It is also a good read.
Another historical work of value is Selina O’Grady’s And Man Created God: Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus (Atlantic Books, £20). This is a gallant shot at a big subject.
But the publishing event of the year was the three-volume annotated edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Noel Malcolm has been working on this project for 20 years and has produced not only as good a text as we are ever likely to get but a first-class work of scholarship all round. Hobbes is our sharpest political philosopher and deserves this attention. But the price! (OUP, £195).
Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, £20) is his third magisterial mix of scholarship and exploration of landscape. He takes long walks, and examines the stories of these ancient ways. For me, to read him is to enter a virtual world, going to places I never could have got to, but that spring to life from his language — a hidden hollow way, a Hebridean track.
Why was John Lanchester’s Capital (Faber, £17.99) not Booker-listed? It is a splendidly capacious novel that subsumes London life of today into a single street and the fates of its residents over a year or so, their diversity nicely reflecting the cosmopolitan city: the Asian boy in the corner shop, the Polish builder Zbigniew, the Senegalese boy footballer, the city banker. A dozen different stories, all equally persuasive and absorbing.
Farce is theatre. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to whisk up a novel that is an exquisite, hilarious reflection of the stage format. Michael Frayn’s Skios (Faber, £15.99) is just that — a brilliantly plotted skirmish through events on a Greek island where an important foundation is holding its annual gathering. I loved it.
I really liked Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99) a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and, of these essays, I really, really liked the one on Michael Jackson. Sullivan tells us more interesting stuff in this one essay than everything else I’ve read put together — the ancestors who were slaves, the scandals, the voice, the way he composed music; Sullivan tries to understand the way Jackson thought.
I also loved Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First (Quercus, £12.99), a history of food by a writer who thinks more clearly about food than anybody else — actually, Gopnik writes beautifully about more or less anything, including, once, his experiences on the analyst’s couch. The thing is that this guy puts all his thinking — about economics, literature, philosophy — into his work on food; this is a lovely history of the way we think about all sorts of things.
And I enjoyed Frank Partnoy’s Wait (Profile, £12.99), about decision-making, and how it’s often better not to rush into things. A great example is apologising — when you apologise, you should time it perfectly, he says. Wait a while —a hasty apology often seems hopelessly self-serving.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012