2012 is very nearly finished. Here is a selection (published in the magazine last month) of the Spectator's best books of the year.
There’s been a fad for publishing ‘biographies’ of entities that are not human beings: everything from longitude to the mosquito, and the format can prove forced. But Robert Shepherd’s Westminster, A Biography: From Earliest Times to the Present (Bloomsbury, £20) chooses a subject with a beating heart. Westminster has developed a most distinct personality since its birth as a swampy Bronze Age island, and Shepherd explains, describes and charts it with great scholarship, of course, but with a smile and a quizzical eyebrow. I love learning how little I knew.
Janan Ganesh’s George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor (Biteback, £20) treads with skill and flair the awkward line between authorised and unauthorised biography. Ganesh, who has an intuitive grasp of the Tory psyche, has obviously had some co-operation from his subject, to whom he is not unsympathetic; but he’s patently his own man, and this is his own book, revealing, penetrating, stylish and superbly written. Honestly, it’s a page-turner. Follow Ganesh, a young columnist who writes for the FT: he’s going to be among the great political essayists of his generation.
Magnus Mills is one of few writers whose novels I buy and read as soon as they come out. Odd, surreal, rather formal, increasingly abstract, they are also wonderfully funny and surprising, as long as you don’t read the blurb, which inevitably gives at least one ingenious plot-point away for no reason at all.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury, £12.99) takes us to the ancient Empire of Greater Fallowfields, a country so delighted in its glorious past that no one notices it is falling apart. Where is the emperor? No one knows. Why are all the people appointed to court posts wholly unqualified for them? Where has all the money gone? In each novel Mills creates a world a little like our own but not quite. He writes mainly about work, and only about men.
There’s an air of creeping menace in some of his books, though not all, and what strikes you in this one is the equanimity with which his characters adapt to relatively appalling new circumstances. I love these books: there’s nothing like them, and they’re not even like each other. Why he isn’t winning all the prizes and selling in millions is, to me, an enduring mystery.
Other novels, old and new, I enjoyed this year included Sybille Bedford’s A Favourite of the Gods (1963), Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (1983), Joanna Briscoe’s Mothers and Other Lovers (1994) and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (2009).
In Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (Picador, £7.99), Solomon Kugel moves from New York to the country as a way of escaping Jewish history — only to find the elderly Anne Frank living in his attic. What follows takes the Jewish-American novel to new levels of heretical comedy and fearless brilliance.
On a more respectable note, Thomas Keneally’s The Daughter of Mars (Sceptre, £18.99) — about Australian nurses in the first world war — may be the best novel of his career: a book that aims for, and achieves, real grandeur. Finally, Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat (Union, £12.99) rips into all aspects of foodie culture gleefully, eruditely and, as far as I can see, irrefutably. If there’s any justice, it should put an immediate end to all those incomprehensible menus, absurd claims about the ‘art’ of cooking, and to chips inexplicably served in beakers.
The bitter accusations levelled by Diarmaid MacCulloch at Eamon Duffy for his approach to history in Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition (Bloomsbury, £20), had, I thought, been neatly met in the book’s first pages. But for me this collection of papers on the Reformation was most welcome for restoring the intellectual stature of John Fisher and Reginald Pole, and for filling me with enthusiasm for the great perpendicular church of Salle in Norfolk.
The most helpful piece of scholarship was Noel Malcolm’s translating the Latin version and appendix of Hobbes’s Leviathan in his monumental three-volume edition (Oxford, £195). I still haven’t got over the old devil insisting that God is corporeal. What could he have meant?
The best cover — to which the book lived up — this year used a wood engraving of a shire horse by C.F. Tunnicliffe for the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (£25). Yet the same publisher also sent out a note this year saying that their volume on the Shroud of Turin, Thomas de Wesselow’s The Sign (£20), was ‘one of the most important books we have published’. For important read stupid.
Few of us expect to die while on holiday abroad; but we do, often enough. Adam Thorpe’s deftly plotted thriller Flight (Cape, £16.99), is full of bleak aviation humour regarding the business of air-freighting deceased holiday-makers, as well as other more unsettling cargoes.
Bageye at the Wheel (Cape, £16.99), Colin Grant’s salty-sweet memoir of growing up in 1970s Luton, is inflected with the Jamaican patois spoken by his parents, and is a classic of its kind in my opinion.
Michael Jacobs, in The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Colombia (Granta, £16.99), has produced an utterly beguiling amalgam of travel journalism and family history inspired, in part, by cases of Alzheimer’s disease known to the author (including that of the ailing Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez).
Finally, Kingston Noir (Akashic Books, £9.99), edited by the Jamaican-born novelist Colin Channer, is a collection of gritty new short stories set in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. (I was asked to contribute but, needless to say, that has nothing to do with my recommendation.)
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, £7.99) 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 small size.
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.