Our regular reviewers were asked to name the books they’d most enjoyed reading this year. More choices next week
• A.N. Wilson
Rachel Campbell-Johnson’s Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (Bloomsbury, £25) is one of those rare biographies which is a work of literature: beautifully written, overwhelmingly moving. A great art critic, with an understanding of the human heart has produced this masterpiece. It is one of the best biographies I have ever read of anyone: it captures the tragedy of Palmer’s life, and brings out the shimmering glory, the iridescent secrets of his Shoreham phase.
Matthew Sturgis’s When in Rome: 2,000 Years of Roman Sightseeing (Frances Lincoln, £20) is a totally original way of writing about the inexhaustible subject of Rome. Each chapter represents a different era of taste, from ancient to modern times: which artefacts and great sites were most popular in which era. Sturgis is a wonderful guide, the writing is always sprightly, and even if you think you know Rome and its history backwards, here is a book which will contain a surprise on every page.
Craig Brown’s One on One (Fourth Estate, £16.99) is a daisy-chain of meetings, starting with Hitler being run over by Lord Howard de Walden, Lord Howard in turn meeting Kipling, Kipling meeting Mark Twain, Twain meeting Helen Keller and so on. The encounters between Khrushchev and Marilyn Monroe and between Edward Heath and Terence Stamp were especially good. Much of this tragi-farcical Dance to the Music of Time is wistful and moving, as well as howlingly funny.
• Philip Ziegler
In her biography of William Morris Fiona MacCarthy opened a window onto the brilliantly talented yet curiously anaemic world of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates. In The Last Pre-Raphaelite (Faber, £25) she switches her attention to Morris’s once great friend and later stern critic, Edward Burne-Jones. Her scholarship is exemplary; her style fluent; her judgment discriminating; above all, she makes her weird galère come vividly alive. Her book is fun to read.
No one could say the same of Ian Kershaw’s The End (Allen Lane, £30). Kershaw is not into fun: his cool yet remorselessly horrific account of the last days of Hitler’s Reich should be compulsory reading for any ruler contemplating taking his country into war. Kershaw is the unchallenged master of German history in the second world war and the years leading up to it; The End is the crown of his great enterprise which must leave him wondering which way he should now go. Whatever he chooses, it will be well worth reading.
• Martin Vander Weyer
For a second year I have been a judge of the Wadsworth Prize for business history — a field which deserves more attention than it ever receives because it tells such extraordinary stories of entrepreneurial achievement, usually followed by managerial misjudgment. That’s certainly the theme of this year’s winner, The Rise and Fall of Great Companies by Geoffrey Owen (OUP/Pasold £45), a superb analysis of the demise of Courtaulds, once a world leader in textiles and fibres.
Among other contenders, I enjoyed the very accessible Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury (HarperPress, £20), ‘200 years of sweet success and bitter rivalry’ retold by a member of the Quaker dynasty who cannot hide her regret at the passing of their firm into the hands of the processed-cheese giant Kraft.
Not a Wadsworth runner, but a must for anyone interested in the evolution of finance: David Kynaston’s City of London (Vintage, £30), an edited version of his unsurpassable four-volume history.
• Sam Leith
Obviously Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20) is a masterpiece. So is Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson (OUP, £25). But having already said as much in these pages, I mention them only in passing. You’re less likely to have heard about Grant Morrison’s clever, passionate Supergods (Cape, £17.99), but I urge it on you if you have any interest in myth, magic, comic-book culture or the question of why you’d put nipples on a Batsuit.
I was grateful to the Man Booker judges, maligned as they have been, for shortlisting Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Granta, £12.99), which I’d not have read otherwise. It’s wonderfully funny and original. Oh, and there’s The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton, £20), too. Craig Raine dismisses David Foster Wallace as a spliff-addled second-rater in the latest Arète, but I think Craig is (as only rarely) quite wrong.
• Anita Brookner
My reading this year has been retrospective, dominated by Stefan Zweig, the most gentlemanly of writers. Beware of Pity, translated by the estimable Anthea Bell, remains powerfully shocking, yet classically restrained, while The Post Office Girl, in a less memorable translation, is queasily convincing. Both are published by Pushkin Press.
Zweig seems unfazed by the horrors he implies, and indeed his understated world-liness is a corrective to contemporary fashions. I make exception for two of those contemporaries: Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending, Cape, 12.99) and Colin Thubron (A Mountain in Tibet, Chatto, £16.99), both of whom do an excellent job of dealing with fears all the more potent for being largely concealed. I was disappointed by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20) which I found excessively long and on the whole unresolved.
For comfort reading I had recourse to the golden age of French crime novels: not only Simenon but Noelle Loriot and Boileau-Narcejac, two writers with a single voice. How good they were! And how cleverly they combined their plots with the spirit of the age, making one feel entirely at home in a world not yet knocked out of recognition by global and environmental concerns.
• Jonathan Mirsky
The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, translated by Michael S. Duke (Doubleday, £12.99).This creepy novel frightened me. Here is how Chan Koonchung, raised in Hong Kong but now living in Beijing, does it: he sets the story in a very near future, 2013, that closely resembles China today, but with two creep-producing additional elements: an entire month, during 2011, has vanished from almost all written records, and almost everyone feels happy all the time.
In Defence of Dogs by John Bradshaw (Allen Lane, £20). Founder of the Anthrozoology Institute at Bristol University, Bradshaw has been studying dogs and their owners for over 25 years. Many of his conclusions are based on evidence acquired over this period, although some go back to Darwin, who loved dogs. The archaeological and anthropological evidence shows that human beings have always had pets, and dogs are the oldest domesticated creatures on the planet. Their DNA predisposes them to prefer human beings if treated kindly within a few weeks of birth.
Collective Killings in Rural China During the Cultural Revolution by Yang Su (CUP, £17.99) is one of the best books I’ve read on China in recent years and the most horrible and frightening. It is horrible because of the ghastly events in the years 1967 and 1968 in Guangdong and Guangxi, where hundreds of thousands of innocent people were slaughtered by their neighbours. It is frightening, as Yang Su writes, because while Mao’s ‘criminal’ regime inspired the mass murders, ‘the Cultural Revolution has been a taboo topic since the late 1980s, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Movement.’
• Phillip Hensher
It was an exceptional year for the novel, with impressive books from Adam Mars-Jones, Ali Smith, Edward Docx, Edward St Aubyn, A.S.Byatt, Cressida Connolly, Ross Raisin, Amitav Ghosh, Tim Binding and Jeffrey Eugenides, just to mention a few.
Many congratulations to the enterprising Hesperus for bringing a small but enchanting German classic, Hans Keilson’s Komodie in Moll, to English readers for the first time.
The three new novels I’d particularly commend are, first, Robert Harris’s superb The Fear Index (Hutchinson, £18.99) guaranteed to appeal to anyone who shudders when their laptop unaccountably fails to switch off. Secondly, my friend Alan Hollinghurst’s magnificent The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20), universally acclaimed as the best novel of the year. Its sumptuous setting perhaps prevented readers from seeing how innovative and original its design was, as a single narrative retreats into vagueness the more it is retold. Thirdly, a debut novel which I helped into the world, Ginny Baily’s Africa Junction, (Harvill/ Secker, £12.99), a finely written and incisive story of global connections. I wish it had had more attention on its publication.
Craig Brown’s One on One (Fourth Estate, £16.99), about unlikely encounters of the great in a century-long daisy-chain, was a beautifully original and gripping approach to biography. Max Hastings’s All Hell Let Loose (Harper Press, £30) was a grandly comprehensive and expressively humane one-volume account of the second world war — something we surprisingly rather lack. I was gripped by Sandy Nairne’s matter-of-fact but hair-raising account of the efforts to reclaim two Turners stolen from the Tate (Art Theft and the Missing Turners, Reaktion, £20). P. G.Wodehouse’s collected letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe (Hutchinson, £30) were not just more entertaining but (whisper it) rather better written than Samuel Beckett’s, which have now reached Volume II, yawn.
The most overrated book of 2011 was Owen Jones’s polemic Chavs (Verso, £14.99). The spread of contempt for the urban working classes is an important subject, but here it got lost under a welter of old-school moans about Mrs Thatcher, as if anyone still cared. A missed opportunity, mysteriously admired by the lumpenintelligentsia.
• Andrew Taylor
Perhaps the most unexpected crime novel of the year was C. S. Forester’s The Pursued (Penguin Modern Classics, £14.99). Written in the 1930s, the manuscript was lost for more than 70 years. Now published for the first time, it’s a suburban revenge tragedy driven by adultery and murder. It both captures its era and seems oddly modern in its concerns.
I read Cath Staincliffe’s The Kindest Thing (Robinson, £7.99) this year, though it was published in 2010. It’s an unflinching account of a middle-aged woman who agrees to assist in the suicide of her terminally ill husband and then finds herself charged with his murder. Not an easy read but a powerful dramatisation of an increasingly relevant issue.
James Sallis’s The Killer is Dying (No Exit, £7.99) is a crime novel about a contract killer with one last commission to fulfil. It’s also a beautifully written mediation about living and dying.
Finally, I much enjoyed John Lawton’s A Lily of the Field (Grove Press, £16.99), the latest title in his excellent Frederick Troy series, set mainly in the Forties and Fifties. Intelligent historical thrillers don’t come much better than this.
• Bevis Hillier
Three exemplary biographies top my list. All are based on stupendous research and are very well written.
The first is Fiona MacCarthy’s The Last Pre-Raphaelite (Faber, £25), a fitting sequel to her 1994 life of William Morris. Burne-Jones comes across as a good man, though John Carey, in his review of the book, thought his Ruskin-like attentions to young girls ‘rather creepy’. I’m in two minds about Burne-Jones the artist. His art sings when it is transmuted into craft, as stained-glass windows, tapestries or book illustrations. But many of his oil paintings have a chill, hierophantic quality and, although MacCarthy is at pains to identify his women sitters, most of them have the same sugar-almond-sweet expression.
I must admit that I have been too willing to accept John Betjeman’s estimate of Nikolaus Pevsner as a ‘dull Prussian pedant’. No one could finish Susie Harries’ biography (Chatto, £30) and continue to think of him in those terms. He was witty, a bit of a flirt with the ladies, and valiant in the face of horrible circumstances. But for the Nazis, Pevsner would have been a high-flying art history professor in Germany. He had far more right than Hitler to call his life-story ‘My Struggle’.
Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson (OUP, £25) is a work of tremendous scholarship about arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. I am glad that the author accepts without cavil that Jonson’s poem ‘An Epigram to the Counsellor’ was dedicated to Sir Anthony Benn, successively Recorder of Kingston-upon-Thames and of London. I am gestating a theory that Benn may have had a significant role in the Shakespeare story; and it is remarkable that his successor as Recorder of London in 1618, Richard Martin, was also — as Donaldson clearly shows — in Jonson’s circle.
A perfect stocking-filler is Nicholas Orme’s Fleas, Flies and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages (Impress, £6.99) but note that this is a book aimed at adults, not kiddies. Along with the tongue-twisters, nonsense verses and insults is a number of 4B poems — Boys Bewailing Being Birched —anticipating by half a millennium Swinburne’s Whippingham Papers.
• Lewis Jones
Even in translation, Michel Houellebecq’s novels are witty, mad (particularly in translation) and sickeningly funny. I’m reading his latest, The Map and the Territory (Heinemann, £17.99), which won the Prix Goncourt last year. As expected, author and characters are superb in their disgust with and contempt for the world in general, and especially France, art, tourism and gastronomy, all of them hideously related. The sex and atrocities have been rationed, though; the writing has new polish and finesse; and a shocking sympathy has crept into the proceedings.
Even if it did not win the Man Booker Prize after I backed it at 8-1, I thought Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (Blooms- bury, £12.99) was miraculous.
I’m not saying that Sam Leith’s You Talkin’ To Me? (Profile Books, £14.99) is brilliant, or that it should do well this Christmas, and nor am I about to end this sentence with a but.
• Christopher Howse
Ian Ker’s fat biography of the fat journalist and thinker G. K. Chesterton (OUP, £35) shows him answering the question he posed in Orthodoxy (1910): ‘How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?’ By Fr Ker’s illuminating study of the man and his works, Chesterton has at last been shaken free from the second-rate admirers who have depressed his reputation.
Just at this tail-end of the year comes a treat from Anthony Symondson, whose book on Ninian Comper gave such pleasure in 2006. Now it’s Stephen Dykes Bower (RIBA, £20), best known for his completion of St Edmondsbury cathedral, but for much of his long life maligned for the very respect that he accorded historic architecture.