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Books Of The Year

A selection of the best and worst books of 2008, chosen by some of our regular reviewers

12 November 2008

12:00 AM

12 November 2008

12:00 AM

Sam Leith

Richard Price’s meaty and fabulously enjoyable police procedural, Lush Life (Bloomsbury, £12.99), is a book I have pressed on a lot of friends. The new Robert B. Parker, Rough Weather (Quercus, £16.99), is bliss, too, because it has Spenser, Hawk and the Gray Man in it. Short stories from Kurt Vonnegut (Armageddon in Retrospect, Cape, £16.99), and Annie Proulx (Fine Just The Way It Is, 4th Estate, £14.99) were moving, funny and wise.

In politics, Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Atlantic, £12.99) offered a lucid account of the world order; while Joseph Stiglitz’s and Linda Bilmes’s The Three Trillion Dollar War (Allen Lane, £20) offered a similarly clear explanation of why the Iraq war, to paraphrase their argument, sucked cheese.
Lettres don’t get more belles than Robert Lowell’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s (Words in Air, Faber, £40). And J. G. Ballard’s Miracles of Life (4th Estate, £14.99) is testament to an extraordinary writer and a true mensch.

Lettres don’t get more belles than Robert Lowell’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s (Words in Air, Faber, £40). And J. G. Ballard’s Miracles of Life (4th Estate, £14.99) is testament to an extraordinary writer and a true mensch.

Philip Ziegler

With The Private Patient (Faber, £18.99) P. D. James has written a book which, for masterly evocation of place and understanding of human nature, is as good as anything she has ever done. It therefore ranks among the masterpieces of British crime writing and, but for the snobbishness of genre categorisation, would be an obvious candidate for a major literary prize. There are ominous hints that this might be Dalgleish’s last case. May it not be so.

Andrew Roberts’ Masters and Commanders (Allen Lane, £25) is an enthralling analysis of the relationship between Churchill, Roosevelt, Marshall and Alanbrooke. Frequently at loggerheads, shifting in their alliances with each other, occasionally reduced to fury by the the others’ obstinacy or intransigence, these men knew that the future of the free world depended on their working together. Roberts tells the story of their doing so with consummate mastery of his sources and all the vigour and enthusiasm which makes his writing such a joy to read.

Rupert Christiansen

Mick Imlah’s exploration of the culture of Scottishness, The Lost Leader (Faber, £9.99), is brilliantly witty and intellectually supple, a worthy winner of this year’s
Forward Prize for Poetry. Bloomsbury Ballerina (Weidenfeld, £25), Judith Mackrell’s life of Lydia Lopokova, is a hugely entertaining and informative study of the Ballets Russes star who had a remarkable second career as wife to Maynard Keynes. Tim Skelton and Gerald Gliddon’s Lutyens and the Great War (Frances Lincoln, £30) is a beautifully produced tribute to that great architect’s work on cemeteries and memorials.

Published in 2007 but new in paperback, Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife (Bloomsbury, £8.99) was sneeringly reviewed by a lot of dryasdust chauvinist pigs who seemed to miss the point. I loved it — a daringly original piece of scholarship and speculation which makes one rethink received suppositions and opens up fascinating new possibilities. My novel of the year is without doubt Aleksander Hemon’s hauntingly strange and weirdly comic The Lazarus Project (Picador, £14.99).

Anita Brookner

As I spent a large part of the year writing, my actual reading was rather restricted, and limited to fact rather than fiction. I very much enjoyed Ferdinand Mount’s Cold Cream (Bloomsbury, £20) and the endlessly fascinating Diaries of James Lees-Milne (John Murray). I also liked The Other Garden and Collected Stories by Francis Wyndham (Picador, £7.99), tenderly and faithfully written. Everything else has been mildly disappointing. Now I am reduced to nostalgia reading: Simenon, Kundera, Alice Munro.

Alan Judd

Jeremy Lewis, biographer, critic and former publisher, has perpetrated a third enjoyable volume of memoirs, Grub Street Irregular (HarperCollins, £20). He writes so well, with such clarity and seeming simplicity, such unexpected but apt comparisons, that he could make a software manual entertaining. In fact, he only pretends to be an autobiographer, using himself as the foil while he writes with kindly observant irony of others — which is why his memoirs are so entertaining and which tells us, also, something important about him.

Richard Holmes, pre-eminent biographer of the Romantics, tells in The Age of Wonder (HarperCollins, £25) how the Romantic generation discovered science. Contrary to popular assumption, they embraced it with wonder and enthusiasm. Holmes’s account is beautifully written, carrying you along like the great Pacific rollers that swept the young Joseph Banks to unknown Tahiti. But Holmes does more than tell good stories very well: he makes important points about scientific culture, about the necessity of ‘the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe’ — qualities as evident in his own writing as in what he writes about. This is an important book.

Jonathan Mirsky


My Father’s Roses by Nancy Kohner (Hodder, £18.99) recalls the bourgeois, non-observant Jewish world of central Europe from which Ms Kohner’s father, an émigré to England, was lucky to emerge alive. A dandy and an energetic gardener, he had to represent relatives who had perished in the gas chambers, one of whom, his sister, a quirky realist, knew she would never escape the Nazis.

Philip Pan is an American-Chinese with plenty of China left in him. In Out of Mao’s Shadow (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) he describes how, when he was the Washington Post’s man in Beijing, he tracked down Chinese who — heroically seems a paltry word — took on and troubled the system.

The Spectator’s reviewer disliked Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 18.99). I loved it. What family creatures whales are, whose songs communicate over hundreds of miles with fellow pod members. Moby-Dick, about which Hoare has plenty to say, has given whales a bad name. Most of all, I liked the novels I re-read. This year, the two best were Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North and Death of the Heart.

D. J. Taylor

The tiny independent firm of London Books, founded last year, specialises in reprints of hard-boiled thrillers from the interwar years. Two I particularly enjoyed were James Curtis’s They Drive By Night (£12.99) and Robert Westerby’s Wide Boys Never Work (£12.99). Curtis (1907-77), in particular, is a real find — one of those cultivators of metropolitan low-life whose books bristle with an extraordinary streetwise slang that they seem largely to have made up as they went along. Slightly less long in the tooth was the firm’s reissue of Alan Sillitoe’s 1970 picaresque A Start in Life (£12.99). Sillitoe’s 80th birthday, which could have been made a bit more of in the media, was also marked by an excellent biography: Richard Bradford’s The Life of a Long-distance Writer (Peter Owen, £25).

Elsewhere, James Knox’s Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (Frances Lincoln, £25 and £15), which accompanies the current Wallace Collection centenary exhibition, was a revelation. I began it with the vague idea that Lancaster was an amusing cartoonist with a lot of famous friends and ended it thinking him one of the most distinctive comic artists of the 20th century, up there with Ronald Searle in terms of range, scope and originality of line.

P. J. Kavanagh

In the winter of 1896, on a barrow in Charing Cross Road, a mid-17th-century manuscript found by a scholar was eventually proved to be by Thomas Traherne. This was Centuries of Meditations, short, ecstatic appreciations of this world, this universe, by a Church of England cleric who insists on happiness (‘felicitie’), given us by God if we could only learn to see it. Since then much more Traherne has been discovered, most of it in the same delighted, delightful vein. Happiness and Holiness (Canterbury Press, £19.99) is a selection from the Centuries and from these new finds. It is a sort of Traherne Reader, beautifully and informatively edited by Denise Inge. Traherne was a psychotherapist before the word was invented.

House of Wits by Paul Fisher (Little Brown, £16.99) is a door-stopper, at nearly 700 pages, about the Jameses (Henry, William etc). It was a large family, including a reformed alcoholic father with a cork leg and a brilliant, neurosthenic sister, Alice. Detail is piled upon detail, like a canvas by William Frith, of Civil War America and the years that followed in the United States and in London, so that you learn what they ate as well as what they thought, and how the ships that criss-crossed the Atlantic bearing the large family were furnished. A book for a reader with strong arms who relishes colourful facts.

Sebastian Smee

I was excited to see the publication this year of Peter Schjeldahl’s Let’s See: Writings on Art from the New Yorker (Thames & Hudson, £18.95). Schjeldahl’s is not typical New Yorker prose: he has a distinctive, highly refined voice, at once condensed and probing. One doesn’t need to agree with him always (I don’t) to acknowledge that he is currently the best writer on art in the English language. A younger New Yorker writer, Alex Ross, deserves special praise for his history of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Fourth Estate, £20). The first chapter, which opens with a description of the 1906 production in Graz of Strauss’s Salome, with Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg and possibly even Hitler in attendance, is a triumph. Finally, a book of perfume criticism called Perfumes: The Guide (Profile Books, £20), by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.

Like Ross and Schjeldahl, these authors seduce you, with superb prose, into believing that fine discriminations matter, even in areas you may not previously have cared about.

Byron Rogers

The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales, (University of Wales Press, £65) for its scholarship, also for its sense of proportion, as in comments such as this on Roy Jenkins, ‘[He was] a ferocious croquet player’, and on Queen Victoria who ‘spent only seven nights in Wales, compared with seven weeks in Ireland and seven years in Scotland’.Halfway to Venus (Umbrella, £12.99) by Sarah Anderson, with whom I was once in love but who hit me over the head with a kettle, as the result of which I did not know until now how well she could write.

George Osborne

In the fashionable rush to re-read Keynes, Galbraith and Friedman on the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, don’t neglect an emerging batch of modern writers on the current crisis. Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution (Princeton, $16.99) is the best short study I’ve read of what went wrong in the US and how we might fix it.  Niall Fergusson has just published a timely and brilliant new financial history of the world, The Ascent of Money (Allen Lane, £25). And if you want to escape all the doom and gloom this Christmas, you must turn of course to my wife’s gripping tale of the woman who scandalised Edwardian London and White Mischief Kenya (The Bolter, Virago, £18.99).

Christopher Howse

Two biographies changed my view this year of people who already command a wide appeal. William Oddie’s Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy (Oxford, £25) gives a deeper understanding of its subject’s thought, and the background to it, than any book since Chesterton’s Autobiography in 1936, which emphasised the importance of his childhood and his later conquest of pessimism. Dr Oddie brings out Chesterton’s left-wing presuppositions and his astonishing gift for sharp insights, taking his story up to 1908 and the publication of Orthodoxy.

Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson (Weidenfeld, £25) collects a mass of significant detail into a thoroughly readable narrative that compels admiration for this lovable man’s generosity to underdogs and his determination in overcoming melancholy.

Those who did not know her are not perhaps accustomed to seeing approachable humanity in the work of G. E. M. Anscombe, the foremost analytical philosopher of the late 20th century. There is more of it than expected in a collection of her essays on religion and ethics, published under the title Faith in a Hard Ground by the University of St Andrews (Imprint Academic, £17.95). In addition to the usual hard-headed explosions of popular fallacies, she gives a moving account of what the presence of God can mean.

The books I threw away this year have left not a ripple on the surface.

Nicky Haslam

For Ferdinand Mount, in his masterly memoir Cold Cream (Bloomsbury, £20), memory’s madeleine is the cosmetic his titled mother advertised, with unorthodox audacity, in blotchy 1940s newsprint. I just remember the company’s sister product, which promised ‘Pond’s lipstick stays on . . . and on . . . and on.’ Mount’s calm, self-effacing and wistful envoi to a waning world, and his unexpected morph into Downing Street guru, stays on, indelible, in the reader’s mind.

Francis Wyndham’s dissecting ear for enigmatic tension — his grandmother was ‘the Sphinx’ to Oscar Wilde after all — is at it’s most acute in his short stories, recently gathered as a pungent bouquet in The Other Garden (Picador, £7.99) And, along with Wyndham’s chilling humour, you get an introduction by Alan Hollinghurst.

The Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Gallery, 38 Bury Street, London SW1, has produced, at £20, an indispensible catalogue, Lucian Freud: Early Works 1940-58 for their current exhibition (until 12 December). There is a preface by James Holland-Hibbert and an afterword by Catherine Lampert who, with David Dawson, helped curate the exhibition. The paintings are perfectly reproduced and relevant photographs of, and notes on, their subjects are socially, let alone intellectually, fascinating.

Justin Cartwright

The best book of the year for me was  The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate, £20), a revelatory account of the rise of modern music. Two books which disappointed were from two of my favourite novelists: Philip Roth’s Indignation (Cape, £16.99), a muddled and incredible rehash of his favourite themes, and John Updike’s Widows of Eastwick (Penguin, £18.99). At least with the Updike there is some acute obvservation.

Charlotte Moore

Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey (Faber, £16.99) is the story of the Cooperative Correspondance Club, a secret magazine started in 1935, in which a group of women wrote frankly about everything that mattered to them. It’s an absorbing  and moving account of 20th-century female experience, and was a big hit with my book club.

Mark Bostridge’s Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend (Viking, £25) is the first full biography for nearly 60 years. It is a well-judged, fair-minded and readable assessment of the astonishing achievements of this often impossible and endlessly fascinating genius.

In Unstrange Minds (Icon Books, £14.99) the American anthropologist, Roy Richard Grinker, explores the way different cultures define and respond to autism; this intelligent and original book opens important new areas in the autism debate.

Best collection of poems: Lip by Catherine Smith (Smith/Doorstop Books, £7.95).

Bevis Hillier

For Alan Bennett fans, a rare treat is in store this season. His former Oxford college, Exeter, has produced a selection from the Junior Common Room (JCR) suggestion book of his 1950s days. (I am surprised to learn that the shy, self-deprecating Bennett became president of the JCR — a post normally held by thrusting public-school rugger blues.)

What puts this volume way above the usual ‘Sir – Could somebody please give the JCR fender a lick of Brasso?’ are not only the often priceless comments of Bennett (Ned Sherrin and Russell Harty were there too), but the incredibly accomplished drawings of Bennett and others by John Morley, a future director of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and of Gothic architecture (Charles Addams style) by Brian Brindley, who became a priest.

Bennett contributes a nostalgic foreword. Near the end of the book are pages of interest to those who relish filthy limericks. (Try ‘There was a young bird of St Hilda’s’). Ask for Exeter College, Oxford JCR Suggestion Book, edited by J.G. Spiers and J.P. Leighfield (Exeter College, £15).

Canon Professor Nicholas Orme, DD, D.Litt, D.Phil, FSA might not sound the obvious person to write a sparkling jeu d’esprit, but that is just what he has done in The Cathedral Cat (Impress Books, £9.99). That is the title story of this little book of historically-based tales, each with some link with Exeter Cathedral. (Until recently, Orme was Professor of History at Exeter university.)

Alan Coren once asked the manager of Hatchard’s bookshop what subjects sold best. He was told: ‘Cats, golf and Nazis’. So Coren wrote Golfing for Cats, with a giant swastika on the jacket. Orme scores only one out of the three — but what a one! Cat-lovers will be lured into the book by the feline illuminated initial on the cover, and they will not be disappointed. But those less enchanted by cats — was it Churchill or Lord Emsworth who said, ‘Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, pigs treat you as an equal’? — will also find plenty to enjoy. I liked best the story of the Bohun family who ‘claimed to be descended from a family of swans’. Orme puts the grin into Lohengrin (and the cat into Cathedral, of course).


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