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Christmas Books I

The best and worst books of the year, chosen by some of our regular contributors

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

Marcus Berkmann

I tend to read non-fiction for review or research and fiction to keep me sane. This year I have rarely been more than two books away from another Georges Simenon. I started late last year with three old Maigrets I found on a shelf (fortunately my own), then progressed to the romans durs, fantastically bleak, unforgiving portrayals of psychological collapse, recounted in the old rogue’s characteristically flat, unemotional prose. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (Penguin, 1938) is justly revered; Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1952) has recently reappeared under the NYRB imprint; but I particularly admired The Little Man from Archangel (1957), which is out of print and shouldn’t be. Personally, I need to be quite emotionally robust to get the most out of these books, or so miserable that the even deeper miseries of his characters actually cheer me up.

Oldish and newish novels I have also enjoyed this year include Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), Barry Unsworth’s The Song of the Kings (2002), Alexei Sayle’s The Weeping Women Hotel (2006) and John Preston’s The Dig (2007).

Nicholas Haslam

You might need some literally lighter reading after that recent heavy tome, so try Maryam Sach’s pensive, Colette-like first novella Without Saying Goodbye (Quartet, £10), or maybe Einstein’s Watch (Profile Books, £9.99), a compellingly varied collection of things that were offered for sale in 2008 — from Rommel’s P45 to Haile Selassie’s visitor’s book — by Jolyon Fenwick and Marcus Husselby. Waiting for Princess Margaret (Quartet, £12), the delicious third volume of Emma Tennant’s fict-fact memoirs is slim merely in format. I took a paperback of Patrick Wilcken’s Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janiero 1808-21 (Bloomsbury, £8.99) to that music-obsessed city, an obsession made understandable when one reads that the first-ever performance of Hayden’s Creation took place in Rio during those very years. Having discovered a verse by the (to me unknown) 17th-century Thomas Traherne for my autobiography, I recently came across his magical Poems of Felicity (Clarendon Press, 1912), bound in faded vellum among my father’s possessions. Finally, topping a bumper literary year, Selina Hastings has exhumed long-hidden aspects of that ancient snapping turtle’s past in The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, £25). One can only hope Murray will publish Hastings’s forthcoming biography of the equally enigmatic but sometimes snappy genius, Sybille Bedford.

Simon Baker

Brooklyn (Viking, £17.99), by Colm Tóibín, the story of a young woman’s journey from Ireland to America and her discovery of the compromises one must make in adulthood, is my novel of the year. Tóibín brings his characters startlingly to life, within a plot which, without being forcedly dramatic, is continually surprising. The Movement Reconsidered (Oxford, £18.99), edited by Zachary Leader, is an interesting collection of essays about a puzzling group; depending on your view, they were either a welcome dose of unpretentiousness and poetic purity or a gaggle of Little Englanders whose interests and literary ambitions were dismayingly narrow. It leans heavily on Larkin, the Movement’s one true genius, and has a couple of duff essays, but it should be read.

Two volumes of verse stood out. Ian Hamilton’s Collected Poems (Faber, £14.99) is testimony to the importance of quality over quantity: collected here are the 60-odd poems published in Hamilton’s lifetime, plus a handful of others: a tiny oeuvre, certainly, but a fine one. A Sleepwalk on the Severn (Faber, £7), by Alice Oswald, is a thin volume containing a single, longish poem by one of our most lyrically arresting poets.

Allan Massie

How the Booker judges came to overlook William Trevor’s Love and Summer (Penguin/Viking, £18.99) baffles me; it’s as near to being a perfect short novel as is possible. Among other novels I have enjoyed and admired Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report (Maclehose Press/ Quercus, £18.99), a fine study of war’s inhumanity and its consequences set in an unnamed frontier zone between France and Germany. Lustrum (Hutchinson, £18.99), the second part of Robert Harris’s trilogy based on the life of Cicero, is brilliant, better even than its predecessor, Imperium. All the same, my novel of the year is the concluding volume of Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow, entitled Poison, Shadow and Farewell (Chatto, £18.99). Marías is not an easy writer till you accustom yourself to his tumbling style, but once you surrender, you are hooked. His wit, intelligence and understanding of how we think, speak and act are astonishing.

Among non-fiction books nothing pleased and fascinated me more than Americans in Paris (Harper Press, £20) by Charles Glass. I should declare an interest, since Charlie is a friend, but this study of life and death in German-occupied France is riveting. He explores with fine sympathy the complexities, ambiguities and moral dilemmas that were inescapable in these dark years of French history.

It is rare at my age to come on a new poet who pleases, for my taste crystallised early, but Owen Sheers seems very good to me. I bought Skirrid Hill (Seren, £7.99) almost by chance at a book festival and have been reading a poem a day, delighting in the spare, exact language.

The most overrated book of the year was The Infinities (Picador, £14.99) by John Banville: lush writing and tiresome whimsy.

Andro Linklater

It will be apparent to the alert reader that crows have become the new dog. No book about these intelligent, witty, exploitative creatures can be bad. The most enjoyable that I read this year was Corvus: A Life with Birds, whose seductively dotty author, Esther Wolfson, lives in what appears to be an aviary of wounded and rescued birds (Granta, £8.99). It contains such enticing lines as ‘I heard the unmistakable thump of a dead parrot falling from its perch.’ (I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the quote because my copy has been lent and re-lent to perdition.) Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (Vintage, £8.99) contained the most distinguished pastoral writing that I read this year, and opened my eyes to the difference between a roost and a rookery. The outstanding novel was Marilynne Robinson’s Home (Virago, £7.99). Miraculous in its delicacy, wrenching in its anguish, it was a reminder of the exhilarating power that fiction can exert on the imagination.

Rupert Christiansen

The most alluring fiction I have read is Aleksandar Hemon’s collection of short stories Love and Obstacles (Picador, £12.99 ). A Bosnian Serb who emigrated to Chicago at the start of the Balkans War, Hemon writes wonderfully vivid and idiosyncratic English and tells tales that are both hauntingly strange and terribly funny.

Two books of hard but complex fact gave me some understanding of matters which I usually consider way beyond my intellectual ken. Christopher Potter’s You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe (Hutchinson, £20) and James Le Fanu’s Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (Harper Press, £18.99) are both masterly pieces of scientific explanation, written with great sensitivity and clarity.

Best bedside reading: Richard Eyre’s hugely enjoyable selection of interviews Talking Theatre (Nick Hern Books, £20). Eyre’s questioning gets beyond the usual journalistic tittle-tattle and makes actors and directors sound as intelligent and thoughtful as they really are.

Francis King

Concise, psychologically acute and immaculately structured, Allan Massie’s Surviving (Vagabond Voices, £10) is precisely the sort of novel that at once appeals to me. A theme that deals with the disordered and broken lives of expatriate members and former members of Alcoholics Anonymous in Seventies Rome might not sound all that enticing. But the authority with which Massie handles it is hugely impressive from start to finish.

That Massie’s slim book did not reach even the Mann Booker long list, whereas Hilary Mantel’s obese Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99) won that prize, only confirms me in my view that, in a variation of the old ceremony of annually presenting the Aga Khan with his weight in gold, the Booker judges first heave their entries on to their kitchen scales. Inevitably, perhaps, I found myself thinking of another Booker-winning historical novel — J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. Now that really is a masterpiece. But the lethargic journey on Mantel’s jumbo made me wonder whether, at my advanced age, I might not drop dead of boredom before I had reached its end.

P. J. Kavanagh

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs, an American academic, is published commercially in the U.S. by Harper Collins, but in this country by SPCK (£12.99). Of course it is a deeply divisive concept, even among Christians, seen by some as an insult to perfectible Man, by others as an insult to God, because of its injustice. However, there are those of us, looking into our divided selves, and outside at the goings-on of the world, who wonder if there is not some inherent destructiveness in mankind. Jacobs belongs to this party but he gives other views a fair hearing and is so widely ranging, and entertaining on the way, that his book is an historically informative delight. Yesterday I dipped into it again to see if my first impression, months ago, was justified, and found myself involuntarily re-reading it from beginning to end.

Anita Brookner

For devotees of the Diaries of James Lees-Milne, Michael Bloch’s biography (John Murray, £25) is essential. Absolute discretion combined with extensive knowledge make this a dignified achievement. I much enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s Love’s Civil War: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973, edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson (Simon & Schuster, £16.99). The contrast between Bowen’s uninhibited outpourings and Ritchie’s extremely circumspect comments is painfully instructive. Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past (Pushkin Press, £7.99) reminds one of a quality too often missing from contemporary writing: tenderness. My absolute favourite is a reprint: Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov. A Critical Journey (Granta, £8.99) which comes prefaced with a memorable Chekhovian observation: ‘What torture it is to cut the nails on your right hand!’

A good year for fiction. Wolf Hall is being reserved for Christmas.

Philip Ziegler

William Fiennes’s The Music Room (Picador, £14.99) is a magically well-described account of childhood in a moated castle with an elder brother whose epilepsy doomed him to ever more dangerous bouts of uncontrollable violence. The love and understanding with which the family coped with this disaster are awe-inspiring; the story is a sad one, yet radiant with hope and patient determination.

John Campbell’s Pistols at Dawn (Cape, £20) brilliantly recounts eight of the political feuds which have disturbed British politics: from Fox and Pitt, by way of Gladstone and Disraeli to Brown and Blair. Only Castlereagh and Canning actually had recourse to weapons, but if Heath had been able to call out Margaret Thatcher Campbell leaves little doubt that he would have done so.

Finally Selina Hastings, who specialises in difficult subjects, in The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, £25) provides an acute, penetrating, yet wonderfully sympathetic portrait of that hypersensitive and sometimes spiteful man. Literary biography could hardly be better done.

Piers Paul Read

Having been steeped in the anti-clerical polemic of France in the late 19th century doing research for a book, I anticipated a sense of déjà lu when asked to review Terry Eagleton’s contra-Dawkins and contra-Hitchens polemic, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. (Yale, £18.99). I was agreeably surprised. Eagleton writes with lucidity, wit and panache and, though an atheist himself, successfully shreds what the conflated Ditchkins say in their books. He ‘ventriloquises’ his defence of religion in reaction to the ‘straw-targeting of Christ- ianity . . . now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals — that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance.’ For example, Dawkins’s refusal to admit that ‘a single human benefit has ever flowed from religious faith, [is] a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.’

Bevis Hillier

It has been a bumper year for biographies. I am very glad I am not a judge of the Whitbread Prize, as there is an embarras de richesse to choose from. My top two contenders would be Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, £25) and John Carey’s William Golding (Faber, £25). In both books, gruelling research is transmuted into an engrossing, easily assimilable story. I’m not sure how ‘secret’ Maugham’s lives were — by the standards of the time, he was pretty ‘out’; but Hastings dissects them all with the same balance and wit that she brought to her lives of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Rosamond Lehmann. Golding may have been hiding more: on the surface he was a rollicking heterosexual, but more than one acquaintance thought he was gay, and Carey leaves the possibility on the table.

There are three other biographies the judges would need to consider: Michael Bloch’s James Lees-Milne (John Murray, £25); Frances Spalding’s John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford, £25); and David Nokes’s Samuel Johnson: A Life (Faber, £25). Remarkably, Bloch manages to chronicle the life of his complex subject with hardly any direct quotation from the diaries of Lees-Milne which he has edited so adroitly. Perhaps he didn’t want to steal his own thunder? Necessarily, Spalding’s is an art book and a music book (Myfanwy’s libretti for Britten operas) as well as a biography: she scores high marks in each category.

Nokes’s Johnson coincides with the Great Cham’s tercentenary (born 1709). Inevitably, it will be compared not just with Boswell, but with Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), another excellent work, which jumped the gun, appearing in 2008. I’d award the palm to Nokes, a London University professor. He begins with an engaging preface about what it is like to have one’s office in Johnson’s part of London. And his research is that bit more thorough than Martin’s: for example, Martin suggests that Johnson may be the mystery figure in a Zoffany painting of David Garrick and his (Garrick’s) wife at Hampton, whereas it has been established from an inventory of Garrick’s household effects that the figure is Colonel George Bodens — like Johnson, a friend of Mrs Thrale. Neither author mentions Johnson’s alleged experiments at the Chelsea porcelain factory, or the fact that at the short-lived academy he ran at Edial Hall in Staffordshire, he taught a brother of John Offley who owned the house in which the Chelsea factory began.

Jonathan Sumption

Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (Yale, £19.99) completes the story of the English Reformation which began with the author’s masterpiece, The Stripping of the Altars. Queen Mary’s brief, violent and unsuccessful attempt to turn back the clock on the Protestant revolution has never been an appealing subject. It runs counter to too many of the ideas that the English entertain about themselves and their history. Yet Duffy shows that Mary’s Counter-Reformation had widespread support. Her persecution of Protestantism might well have succeeded in eradicating it if she had not died prematurely at 42.

Those who want a more comfortable read should try Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (OUP, £20). The fruit of extensive reading and many years of reflection by a great historian, this remarkable book shows us the attitudes of educated Englishmen between the 16th and the 18th century to life and death, work, wealth and leisure, fame and failure. No one else could have broached such an ambitious subject.

Sam Leith

If you’re interested in poker, you will adore Victoria Coren’s memoir For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker (Canongate, £16.99). If you’re not interested in poker, you will adore it anyway — which is rather the test. I’ve read nobody but Al Alvarez who writes as well about the game and its world.

 If you’re prone to depression, you might find Coren’s wit, wealth and success too much, though. Christmas is, after all, a time to think about those less fortunate than ourselves, in the hopes their misery will cheer us up. Warm your cockles, then, at the fire of Roger Lewis’s hilariously misanthropic Seasonal Suicide Notes: My Life As It Is Lived (Short Books, £12.99), and Ariel Leve’s drily lugubrious The Cassandra Chronicles (Portobello, £12.99), which comes with the tagline ‘It could be worse — you could be me.’

The latter offers glass half-empty; the former offers glass in-the-face. Rueful and Baleful, they’d be called, if they were dwarves. 

Alan Judd

C. J. Sansom’s Revelation (Pan, £7.99) is the fourth in his series of Tudor crime novels featuring his crookback lawyer-detective, Matthew Shardlake. A series of horrific murders forces Shardlake to fish in troubled waters which throw up Protestant extremist threats to the state, dangerous knowledge of Henry VIII’s wooing of the reluctant Catherine Parr, confinement in Bedlam, the dilemma of Archbishop Cranmer and the perils of the Court. Throughout this original and well-wrought series, Sansom tells good stories through characters not only credible but interesting, evoking a persuasive picture of Tudor town life, legal practice and political reality without clogging his narrative with authentic but extraneous detail. He is particularly adept at conveying, rather than preaching, the difficulty of living with the fundamental issue of the time — religious and political allegiance.

Moving on a few decades, David Ellis’s That Man Shakespeare (Helm Information Ltd, £38) is a masterly and timely piece of corrective scholarship. Although we know more about Shakespeare than about most Elizabethans, we know much less than we should like and Ellis casts a wise and sceptical eye over Shakespearean historiography. He doesn’t attempt yet another biography, nor a compendium of everything that is known, but offers a helpful, sane and deeply informed guide through all that we do know and — more importantly — what we think we know but don’t.

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